Tag: language Page 1 of 2

Stéphane Degout, singer, baritone, French, opera, lieder, stage, culture, arts

Stéphane Degout: On Text, Teaching, Language, & Voice

The end of January may be grey and cold, but online the time is considerably enriched by various classical artists and organizations marking Schubert’s birthday. The German composer (1797-1828) is known for his beloved song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (1823), Winterreise (1827) and Schwanengesang (1828), all of which use texts by German writers and poets to explore deeply human experiences – wonder, longing, love, sadness, loss.

Opéra Comique is offering their own thoughtful salute to the composer with L’Autre Voyage (The Other Journey), opening on 1 February. Combining selections of Schubert’s music with fragments of poetry (by Heine, Goethe, and others) the work features the central figure of a forensic doctor whose recognition of his dead doppelganger catalyzes important personal explorations. With direction and libretto by theatre artist Silvia Costa and musical direction by Raphaël Pichon, the work offers a fascinating insight into the lasting impact of Schubert’s oeuvre as well as the text that fuelled his creative inspiration and continues to inspire its interpreters, including Voyage lead Stéphane Degout.

The French baritone’s passion for text and music has translated into an immensely engaging approach over baroque, classical, romantic, modern, and contemporary repertoires. Degout has sung title roles in a number of famous works including Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande, Conti’s Don Chisciotte, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and Thomas’ Hamlet. He has graced the stages of Opéra de Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Berlin Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Theater an der Wien, Teatro alla Scala, De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam, Opernhaus Zurich, Lyric Opera Chicago, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York. Festival appearances include Salzburg, Saint Denis, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, and Aix-en-Provence. In 2022 Degout won the Male Singer of the Year at the International Opera Awards, and the following year became Master-in-Residence of the vocal section at Belgium’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, having been recommended to the role by baritone José van Dam, the organization’s then-Master-in-Residence. The two baritones share a long history, having first appeared onstage together in a 2003 production of Messiaen’s Saint Françoise d’Assise at the RuhrTriennale.

Degout has also worked extensively with conductor Raphaël Pichon and his Pygmalion ensemble, onstage, on tours, and across a range of lauded recordings. The 2018 album Enfers (harmonia mundi) features a deliciously  dark selection of works by French composers (Gluck, Rebel, Rameau), while 2022’s Mein Traum (harmonia mundi) explores dreams via pieces by Schubert, Weber, Schumann, and Liszt. This past December Pichon led his Pygmalion on a European tour of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah with Degout as a soloist alongside Siobhan Stagg, Ema Nikolovska, Thomas Atkins, and Julie Roset. But famed historic works are not, as was mentioned, Degout’s sole territory; the baritone has performed and often been directly involved with the creation numerous contemporary operas, including Benoît Mernier’s La Dispute (2013), Philippe Boesmans’ Au Monde (2014; both La Monnaie), and Pinocchio (2017) also by Boesmans and commissioned by the annual Aix-en-Provence Festival. British composer George Benjamin wrote the role of The King in his intense 2018 opera Lessons in Love and Violence (premiered at at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden) specifically for Degout’s voice.

That voice is as much at home in intimate settings as opera stages. His 2021 performance as the title character in Berg’s Wozzeck with Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse garnered high praise from French media, with music magazine Diapason praising the singer’s mix of power and delicacy and proclaiming “Victoire absolue pour Stéphane Degout”. Such a special combination of intensity and lyricism was shown to full effect in 2022 with chamber orchestra recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (b.records) with French ensemble Le Balcon, and in 2023, via Brahms’ song cycle La Belle Maguelone (b.records) in a recording captured live at Théâtre de l’Athénée Louis-Jouvet and featuring pianist Alain Planès, mezzo soprano Marielou Jacquard, and speaker Roger Germser. This spring Degout will be using his magical blend of power and sensitivity in the little-known opera Guercœur with Opera national du Rhin. The work, penned by French composer Albéric Magnard between 1897 and 1901 but only presented live in 1931, wears its Wagnerian influences on its sleeve while deftly distilling both the grandeur of late Romanticism and the immediacy of European song craft.

Such a blend of music and narrative seems central to the more immediate L’Autre Voyage, described by Opéra Comique’s Agnès Terrier as “Ni reconstitution, ni nouvel opéra” (neither reconstruction nor new opera). Instead, Voyage positions itself as a wholly original theatrical piece showcasing the very things that so informed Schubert’s creativity, not to mention the public’s continuing fascinating with him: “le doute, la fantaisie, la solitude, l’élan spirituel” (doubt, fantasy, solitude, spiritual impulse). Voyage runs through mid-February and will be recorded by French public broadcaster France Musique for March broadcast on Samedi à l’opéra. Degout will also be presenting a recital of Schubert’s famed Winterreise with pianist Alain Planès at Opéra Comique on February 14th.

Earlier this month the busy baritone took time out of his rehearsal schedule to share thoughts on the importance of text, not taking one’s mother tongue for granted, and the important reminders teaching offers.

Stéphane Degout, singer, baritone, French, opera, lieder, stage, culture, arts

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

How extensively do you study the immediate text as well as contemporaneous writing and music?

I always do this for every part I sing. I like to know the contextual things – poetry, literature, history, everything – it’s very interesting how it just puts me in, I wouldn’t say the mood, but offers clues and connections with the time of the music. This particular period of Schubert’s is very rich in opera works of course, but every country and every culture has a specificity and I study that accordingly. I will sing Onegin in June, and though it’s later in the 19th century than Schubert, it also has a great connection with Romanticism of the 19th century. So yes, I do read a lot!

To what extent do you think mood in music shifts according to the language, especially for something like L’Autre Voyage?

I’m not sure if you’ve seen the series of conversations between Daniel Barenboim and Christoph Waltz, but in one of them Barenboim says it’s obvious in the music of some composers what their mother tongue is. So it’s obvious with Beethoven that he’s a German speaker from the way he writes music and puts harmonies together and places weight on certain elements within bars – that thinking extends to works in German, French, Russian. I don’t know Russian well enough to be aware, but such an idea is obvious to me in French and German. (Barenboim) also deals with the tempo, that you can’t do the music faster than the maximum you can speak or sing the language – sometimes the centre gives. It’s a sort of technical point, but the mood is given by the language, by the construction of the phrase – and as you know, German has a specific grammar where you have to wait for the end of the phrase to really know the whole thing.

When the language itself is used within a poetic construction, it’s beautiful for sure but it’s also more difficult; you have to be able to get everything at the same time in order to really get it. With L’Autre Voyage sometimes there are altered phrases and words to make connections between these different works more logical – Silvia Costa changed the text, but she worked very carefully on being as close as she could to the original linguistic specificity.

Stéphane Degout, Siobhan Stagg, Chœur Pygmalion, Opéra Comique, Schubert, L'Autre Voyage, Stefan Brion, stage, performing arts, opera, drama, theatre, singing, classical

Stéphane Degout (L) and Siobhan Stagg (R) with Chœur Pygmalion in L’Autre Voyage at Opéra Comique. Photo: Stefan Brion

“I’m very close to the text”

How have these working relationships influenced your approach to different material, whether it’s new material or historical material?

Maybe it’s because I’m a baritone, it makes me more, let’s say… on the spoken side of the music. I’m very close to the text, it’s something I also happen to love – poetry and the languages , talking, conversation. I’ve been lucky because almost all of my repertoire is really based on the language. If we stay with French repertoire, Rameau and the Baroque stuff I did with Raphaël, it’s singing on the notes, it’s declamation, it’s clarity. With German lieder and composers like Wolf and Schubert and Schumann, they all have such respect for the primary material they have – the text and the poetry – so you can’t forget the music, but it’s not the music that drives you through the text; it’s the text that drives you through the music. It’s even more obvious to me because I’m a native French speaker – these things come immediately to my ear. With works by composers like Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, it’s clear they all have first read the respective texts and fallen in love with them, and thought they could make something with the music. But the text – it’s not an excuse to make music; it is the central point of all things. Perhaps I notice this more because when I was a teenager I did theatre and so more talking than singing on stage, I don’t know! (laughs)

As a native French speaker, what’s it like to return to singing in your own language?

The difficulty when we sing in our own language is that we don’t care so much. It is this feeling of, ‘well it’s my language so I don’t need to make an effort’ – but I know I do need to make extra effort. I speak German, I have studied it, so it gives me a sort of extra comfort in singing it; I know the structure and pronunciation but occasionally there I also need a bit of an extra hand, someone to say, ‘it’s right but it doesn’t sound German, it sounds like a foreigner talking in German.’ These language explorations are really fascinating. I have been working with young singers for a few years now and we talk a lot about this issue, and it’s great to see that they have the same comforts and difficulties that I had 25 years ago when I started. It’s a common thing.

What has teaching given you as a singer? What are its challenges?

The difficulty of teaching is putting words on things I do naturally. I’ve been singing professionally for almost three decades now; I don’t need to think very technically or consider what I’m doing physically – it’s just here. But when I have to help a young singer who is struggling with some technical things, breathing issues or whatever, I need to explain exactly, because I hear what’s wrong but need to help to correct it clearly, and this is the difficulty. So, I’m learning to teach, let’s say. It’s sort of a mirror of my own experience, and sometimes hearing a young singer struggling makes me think of the way I’ve done things myself when I was struggling with those same issues.

“Every body is different, every voice is different; it’s not an instrument made in a factory”

Has teaching created a deeper awareness of your own approach?

Yes, very much! We did a concert in Belgium in November, I was one of the singers, and during the concert I realized I didn’t do what I said to the others in the days before when we were rehearsing. Basically I joke about things like that and say: do as I say, not as I do!

There’s also value in being honest with students and saying, “Look, I can teach you the basics, but with some things, my system works for me and it might not work for you.”

Yes, there are basics – breathing, using muscles, pronunciations – but everyone eventually has their own technique, because every body is different, every voice is different; it’s not an instrument made in a factory. Every instrument maker will tell you every instrument is unique…

… and different experiences and backgrounds – context – which will influence what comes out. How does that influence your work with living composers?

It’s been interesting. With George Benjamin, for instance, the work was very specific. He was extremely precise with his own work and what he wanted. It’s exactly what I said before, the text and respect for it, George is really into writing music where the text is very clear and natural. He used virtuosity in his writing for Barbara (Hannigan) because she has this big range she can use, but for me and my character, he used the spoken side of my voice. When he and I first met, I was still in my Pelléas time, with this very clear, high sound; he gave me the score and I saw the part wasn’t written that high – it was surprising – but in working on it and learning the music, I realized that he there was no need to write something that was more important than the text. That’s the way I understood it.

How collaborative was the atmosphere?

I felt very comfortable and confident with him as a conductor, because of course he knew his work well, so he could help us in the meanings as well as the performing. He changed maybe three things with me, things which were more related to the length of notes and breathing; the changes were more naturally aligned to my own way of singing than what he’d written for me.

I don’t know if you know, we met about two years before the presentation, and spent an afternoon together; he was measuring my voice in every direction, how high, how low, how big, how soft. It was quite intimidating and impressive at the same time. He remembered every aspect of my voice from that day, so the part was perfectly written. Also Martin (Crimp, librettist) and other poets had their own music which sat within the material, I can’t quite say what it is because English isn’t my first language – but I knew it was specific, that it was text which involved not merely giving information on the situation. It also helped that (director) Katie Mitchell was observant of our specifics around how we move and speak.

You’re doing another new-ish opera, Guercœur, in the spring. There are so many operas which are only now coming into the public consciousness… 

… yes, it’s true. Guercœur was the idea of (Opéra national du Rhin General Director) Alain Perroux, who has wanted to do it for a long time. I didn’t know about this opera before he told me about its story. The work has, as you probably know, a very unusual history. The composer died before he ever heard this music done live, two-thirds of the original score was lost in a fire, but (composer/conductor) Guy Ropartz saved some and reconstructed the orchestration. It was recorded in 1951 and again in 1986 with a cast that included José Van Dam, and only presented live once, in Germany in 2019 – and this is an opera written more than 100 years ago! The presentation in the spring feels as if it will be a new creation itself, in a way.

“When he sang, I could feel the vibrations”

You mentioned Van Dam, who indeed is part of the recording of Guercœur  – can you describe his influence? 

When I was in the Conservatoire we listened to a lot of his CDs and everyone liked his voice very much. And though we don’t have the same repertoire really, he was the type of artist I wanted to become when I was young. I first met him over twenty years ago when we did Saint François d’Assise in Germany – I was so impressed to be onstage with him. At that time I was singing the role of Frère Léon, the novice of St. François. There’s a moment in the first scene of the opera where François talks with Léon about different things; in the staging Van Dam was next to me, with his arm around me, so our bodies were basically in contact from shoulders to the knee. When he sang I could feel the vibrations – from shoulder to the knee. That was a non-talking lesson, maybe the best one I ever had, and I thought, okay, this is singing; singing is not only involving the mouth – it’s the whole body. That was such an emotional moment. I’ve worked with him since, and we have a great confidence with each other.

I’m very lucky and happy he asked me to replace him at the Chapel. We don’t really talk about this but I can feel we have the same sort of way of doing things, of approaching the music, of being onstage. I’ve seen him teaching there; he doesn’t say much, but does speak about text, diction, language, and that one should be right about the vowels – those small but important details. They’re the key, and I totally agree with him. I’ve always perceived Van Dam as a very calm person, with his feet planted on the earth, that it all comes naturally. I’m also this kind of person, I think – earthy – so yes, it is a special connection indeed.

Top photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot
Gabriele Schnaut, Klytämnestra, Elektra, Bayerische Staatsoper, opera, classical, live, performance, arts, culture, stage

Things to watch, listen to, read (and a lot of Hamlet)

First things first: the Substack newsletter I’d planned is on hold, for many reasons, including technological. If and when things change, I will make an announcement here. Secondly (and related to first): I’ve been busy with professional work, which includes numerous reviews for The Globe & Mail.

Importantly:

Thank you, readers new and old, for standing by me and supporting my work, especially through these last three-plus years, which has been a largely difficult and painful time. I confess that I am slowly winding down my work here, though I may post a few occasional interviews related to artists and events in the future – things that catch my interest and equally speak to our current socio-political epoch with regards to creativity, geography, and ambition.

In that vein: my next interview is with conductor Giordano Bellincampi, who next month leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) in the New Zealand premiere of Die Tote Stadt. Bellincampi, who is also the Music Director of the APO, shares his thoughts around music-making with the orchestra through the pandemic, the necessity of risk, and why Korngold’s opera is so important, especially right now. (There’s also a very moving story that comes with that.) Look out for it next weekend.

A few things have caught my attention the last little while, one of them being the immense traffic my 2022 essay on war and cancel culture continues to garner. I still believe the co-opting of algorithmically-driven language by sectors within the arts community (and arts journalism) is fascinating if frustrating. Nuance, complexity, context, whatever; they don’t generate ad-friendly clicks fomented by white-hot outrage. Pffft. Patience, time, attention, intelligence – very unsexy indeed. To hell with nuance! (I can’t do it; maybe you can.)

All of which is to say: I was very happy to note the Kharkiv Music Festival went ahead this year. Conductor Vitali Alekseenok, who has been the Festival’s Artistic Director since 2021, led a closing-night gala which featured an inspiring mix of opera arias, Ukrainian music, and symphonic works, including Alekseenok’s own arrangement of “Hymn” by Valentin Silvetrov. The conductor, who published a book in 2021 chronicling the protest movement in his native Belarus and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 drove van-fulls of aid supplies from Berlin to the Polish-Ukrainian border, was named this week as Chief Conductor of Deutsche Oper am Rhein starting in the 2024-2025 season. In March 2022 he told Van Musik’s Hartmut Welscher about what he had observed with regards to his Russian contacts:

 I realize how hard it is to do anything in Russia, especially with the new laws that passed (…). But you have to do everything you can. You don’t necessarily need to take to the streets, but you must find some way of taking a stand and speaking out. Better small actions than no action at all. Silence is the most dangerous thing, but of course most people opt for that; or they keep their eyes closed.

Keeping in that vein: this is a very good documentary.

Much (not all) of the footage in this nearly hour-long work was filmed covertly. It is especially useful in illuminating the rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, and his/their recent “march for justice.”

Alekseenok’s work, together with recent events, and a re-examination of various texts, had me thinking a lot about opera, specifically Russian opera, and the ways in which various works have depicted and dealt with power, on stage as much as off of it. I worried this initial quote-tweet yesterday, based off of European Resilience Initiative Center founder Sergej Sumlenny, came off too glib, especially considering the gravity of the then-unfolding drama, so, to paraphrase Byron, I suddenly felt anxious to explain my explanation. Maybe I am context-obsessed, or maybe, as my mother often used to tell me, I’m being too sensitive.

tweet, opera, Russian, coup, Wagner Group, Mussorgsky, power

In this thread I also highlighted Staatstheater Nürnberg’s excellent in-concert presentation of Anton Rubinstein’s rarely-performed 1875 opera The Demon, a work which largely revolves around notions of nuance, balance, perceptions, faith, and ultimately, redemption. Baritone Jochen Kupfer gave a deeply moving portrait of the titular character, with a beautiful burnished tone and crystalline diction. The Demon gets one more outing this season, on July 8th, with the recent performance broadcast (and accessible) via BR Klassik.

Tomorrow (Monday, 26 June) the Bavarian broadcaster will be busy simulcasting the opening of Hamlet by composer Brett Dean at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The presentation follows on Dean’s new piece”Nocturnes and Night Rides” written for the 500th anniversary of the Bayerische Staatsorchester, which was presented by the organization earlier this year.

I reviewed Hamlet the opera when it made its world premiere in 2017 – my observation that it’s an important addition to the opera canon made the headline, which is amusing in retrospect, considering the extent to which that’s indeed become true! To say this work had a big effect is putting things mildly.

In the introduction to my interview with Hamlet librettist Matthew Jocelyn in 2019, I wrote that his and Dean’s work, “(t)he theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone.” At the time Jocelyn was directing the opera’s German premiere at Oper Köln. He discussed the differences between English and German-speaking audiences, his work with conductor Duncan Ward, the uses of language (“the French say “dégustation”) and his collaboration with Dean in the work’s creation (“he more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it”).

Allan Clayton, John Tomlinson, Bayerische Staatsoper, Hamlet, Brett Dean, Matthew Jocelyn, Bayerische Staatsorchester, Neil Armfield, Bavarian State Opera, Shakespeare

John Tomlinson and Allan Clayton in a scene from the 2023 Bayerische Staatsoper presentation of Hamlet. Photographer: Wilfried Hösl.

That collaborative spirit was echoed by tenor Allan Clayton when we spoke in early 2020. Clayton sang the lead in the world premiere of Hamlet in 2017, and performed the Met’s production of the opera last year; he’ll rejoin some of the original cast (including Rod Gilfry and Sir John Tomlinson) and crew (director Neil Armfield and conductor Vladimir Jurowski) for the presentation in Munich.  Clayton recalled working on the first Hamlet production in Glyndebourne and how “every department was being collaborative, from Matthew and Brett’s first jotting down which scenes they wanted to include, to the first night. Everybody was giving everything.”

Speaking of giving: Gabriele Schnaut (pictured in the top photo) knew a thing or two about giving all onstage, and through all kinds of projects. The soprano passed away this week at the age of 72. As well as being one of the great singers of dramatic opera repertoire (Wagner, Strauss, Janáček), Schnaut was also open to working with contemporary composers, including Wolfgang Rihm. In 1987 she performed as Ophelia in Rihm’s Die Hamletmaschine, a work based on Heiner Müller’s 1977 play of the same name and a highly abstract reading of Shakespeare’s play. Throughout her career Schnaut was hailed for her forceful stage performances and visceral interpretations; she made her Bayreuth debut in 1977, and in the coming two-plus decades, gave more than 100 performances there. This, in addition to singing at major houses (New York, London, Milan, Paris, Vienna, to name a brief few), and, from 2005 to 2014, a professor of voice at the University of Performing Arts in Berlin.

Schnaut was especially associated with her work at Bayerische Staatsoper, and in 1997 she graced its stage as the lead in Herbert Wernicke’s then-new (and still-revived) production of Elektra. Almost two decades later, she was in the opera again, this time as Klytämnestra. Her bows from that time, caught on video here, are particularly moving, as were the many tributes and expressions of grief at the news of her death.

Until next time… keep your cultural antennae out, and remember the c-word (it’s context).

Top photo by Wilfried Hösl.
Boris Dralyuk, translator, Odesa, writera, poet, Ukraine, Russia, literary, LARB, LA Review Of Books, My Hollywood, editor

Boris Dralyuk: “You Have To Respond Emotionally To A Text, Not Just Intellectually”

Every day comes the email reminder: It’s time for your German lesson! Daily practice is key to learning a new language! During the worst of the pandemic lockdown I took formal lessons with a real, live teacher via Zoom; the experience was a useful and stimulating way to integrate education and interaction. Those months were indeed fruitful but pricey, and proved ultimately too dear for my limited budget, and so I am now left with basic, self-directed gadgets and services, and to my own analogue study, pursuits which demand other forms of payment (namely energy and attention) that I am not always able to give. It pangs me to consider the extent to which my language skills have slipped away, what with memories falling like raindrops lately – of winning fancy language prizes during elementary school days; of the praise garnered by my mother for pronunciation and swiftness of comprehension; of casually shrugging it away the way teenagers so often do when other interests enter and academic responsibilities loom. Playing linguistic catch-up (otherwise known as jumping in the deep end) as a middle-aged freelancer is daunting, exhausting, often disheartening, but passion for culture renders it necessary, and if I am being honest, uniquely rewarding.

And while knowledge of languages isn’t obligatory to opera appreciation, especially with the introduction of surtitles in 1983, such knowledge deepens the experience considerably. I always felt I was being left out of something, anything, everything, in not knowing opera’s prime languages (Italian-French-German) as well as I ought. That knowledge is slowly expanding, but so too, is my appreciation of the art of translation itself. Companies dedicated to presenting works in their geographically-specific local language (like the English National Opera, and once, if less so now, Komische Oper Berlin) would (do) rely on translations that aim to capture  the nuances of both text and its relationship to and with orchestration and scoring, and (in some cases) to the contexts in which the work was first created and presented (and/or contemporaneously produced). Many composers have actively participated in translations of their works and/or collaborated with their respective text-based counterparts; among opera’s most famous librettists/translators are Alfred Kalisch (1863-1933), Edward J. Dent (1876-1957), Andrew Porter (1928-2015), Amanda Holden (1948-2021; her work will be the subject of a future feature here), and the famous team of W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). Auden-Kallman wrote, along with collaborative translation on works by Mozart, Weill, and Dittersdorf, original libretti for living composers, including Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress, 1951) and Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961; The Bassarids, 1966). More recently, to take just one of many examples, English National Opera’s production of Die Walkure – or The Valkyrie – in autumn 2021 was presented in a singing translation by musician/scholar John Deathridge, whose own meant-for-reading translation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book points up a vital aspect of the industry that has faced new challenges in the digital era, most particularly with the rise of streaming services amidst pandemic.

Any opera lover will know, probably too well, that hitting “translate” on a video lacking formal subtitling invites a world of frustration; the result is mostly comical, and stems from a longstanding caption problem on Youtube. Even with the insertion of formal subtitled translations,the nuances of expression are often lost, drowned out in weird mishmash mixes of intended accuracy and grammatical gibberish. One can’t help but notice the many inadequacies in watching various introductions, talks, interviews, and previews released by opera houses, orchestras, and other classical-related organizations, when it comes to translation options; the varied socio-cultural / political / historical contexts are often binned in the name of (one supposes) expediency, digestibility, an ever-present pressure to get a post up quickly with the least amount of fuss and satisfying ever-shrinking arts budgets while hoping to garner the ever-desired sexy clicks. Is the arts world really so ready to throw something as important as translation to the side? Isn’t it a foundational part of attracting new audiences (and keeping old ones) to cultivate meaningful comprehension (and thus engagement)? At such moments the digital world seems woefully ill-equipped for the demands of translation, yet the internet would seem to be the very spot to offer more fulsome possibilities for the sort of nuanced appreciation that best serves the repertoire – thus arguably increasing its overall appeal. Someone, surely, must be able to build something(s) better, a system organizations at any level can access that goes beyond Google translate (or deepl.com) limitations – but then, someone, something, surely, must fund all of it, and aye, there’s the rub. But how much meaning is being lost in the meantime? How many potential audiences? How many potential ears, minds, hearts?

Of course there is no substitute for direct sensory experience when it comes to the marriage of music and words, but the key, as ever, is finding the time. One of my favourite if too-rarely enjoyed activities is spending a day (a week, a month) studying an opera libretto and related score, large pot of fresh tea at hand. Noting the rhythm of language, the shifting colours of sounds, the ways in which the dynamism of vowels and consonants shapes and informs musical lines and orchestration; pondering interactions, phrasings, silences; these are gifts to be enjoyed and explored, over and over. The act of reading a libretto (especially aloud) gives one a simultaneously broader and more intimate relationship with words, with sounds, with flow, intonations, and emphases, the way they all feel in the mouth, carry-float-sink-shoot in  or through the air – such a reading allows a greater comprehension of the world of words, of the work’s creators, and all those who’ve presented it since. Thus does the world become larger and more detailed, all at once. Deathridge did the world a great service indeed with his Ring book, but his efforts rile my writer’s heart for giving a sharp reminder of the fact that so few other opera-text ventures exist in the 21st century. There is clearly a long history of writer-composer relations – Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig worked with Richard Strauss, for example, and the texts of Friedrich Rückert and Clemens Brentano (among many others) were used by Gustav Mahler. English translations of these writers and others do indeed exist, though the output when it comes to their musical manifestations is spotty; those which are extant in scores, such as those which appear in the Dover editions of Mahler lieder, are far less than ideal (and don’t list translator names for the most part, pity). Indeed they may be intended for phonetic starting points, and as the bases of introductory study for musicians, but they are decidedly not a comprehensive whole. The ever-expanding Lieder.net is a good resource for song translations (and recognizes the translators, natch) even if it makes one long for a more comprehensive whole within the classical industry. Good English translations exist, but to reiterate, are spotty, not always easy to find, and are sometimes couched within more comprehensive volumes.

The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press, 2008), edited by poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy, contains a highly readable, immensely poetic translation of the first act of Die Rosenkavalier by dramatist Christopher Holme, done in 1963. Years before, in 1912, Strauss’s popular opera was its first full English translation by English critic and librettist Alfred Kalisch, who championed the composer’s work and translated other operas into English as well, Salome and Elektra among them. Kalisch himself noted in “The Tribulations of a Translator”, a 1915 presentation for the Royal Musical Association (published by Taylor & Francis; Source: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 1914-1915, 41st Sess. 1914-1915), pp. 145-161) the varied difficulties of translating opera, pinpointing the issue of whether it is the translator’s duty “to produce a readable translation or singable words.” This gets to the heart of the matter for current purposes, for while the latter is a topic for another day, the former – having something readable – is worth investigating, particularly in light of evolving technologies, audience engagement, cultural discussion, and to further perceptions around various forms of identity. Smart translations matter, and readable, easily accessible ones are a net good, in the world of literature as much as in the world of music and specifically classical culture. Most creators would, one assumes, like for their works to be understood in their full range of expression, for audiences of all locales and backgrounds to be given access to those intrinsic cultural nuances which are not always part of the concomitant scoring alone.

Thus it can be said that the act of translation demands respect for place, process, history, and humanism, qualities classical (as much the art form as its artists and ambassadors) aims to embrace and promulgate. In November 1959 writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) presented a lecture at the University of Texas in which he outlined, with fascinating precision, the ways in which the act of translation (as applied here to poetry) changes according to various contexts and received understandings. Using Sappho’s “Orchard” as his first example, Rexroth offers up eight different translations (including his own) to illustrate the vagaries and subtle ways in which language, and the societies from which understandings and experiences of the world springs, informs translation choices. He goes on to observe that translation “can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level.” Translation can do much more, as he notes:

It is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human life outside of one’s own. Making that leap requires imagination, but also compassion.

Thus I would posit that translation is (as I have written in the past) more than sympathy, but a true act of empathy, for translation engages the imagination just as empathy requires, and both require active, directed integrations of intellect and creativity to achieve meaningful effect. Someone who understands this integration thoroughly is poet and translator Boris Dralyuk. Born in Odesa and later relocating to America, Dralyuk is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the LA Review of Books, and is married to acclaimed fellow translator Jenny Croft. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature, though he also taught at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Awarded first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition, he went on, together with Russian-American poet/essayist Irina Mashinski, to win first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 Dralyuk received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly. His work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Review Of Books. His book Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 (Brill) was published in 2012; three years later, he co-edited, together with Mashinski and British poet/translator Robert Chandler, the immense Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), containing a wide swath of poets and writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Dralyuk also served as editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). His translation of Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press) by Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was published in 2018. Dralyuk has also translated the works of Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940), with Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). The writings of Babel, a fellow Odesa native, were described by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard in 2016 as “(f)ractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour […] they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will.” With bold strokes and wild energy, Babel vividly explores the lives of an assortment of colourful sorts drawn from real life, and Dralyuk’s own poetic attention to tone, colour, and pacing shine through the words, not to mention the meticulous, carefully considered rests between those words; rhythm, as it turns out, is just as important as exactitude. In addition to translating the work of Babel, Dralyuk has a close association with noted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (b. 1961), whose equally timely and often harrowing books The Bickford Fuse (Maclehose Press, 2016), and Grey Bees (Maclehose Press, 2020) have been translated to much acclaim, with Kurkov’s own recent fame in the West fuelling a rising awareness of the centrality of good translation and all the moving parts therein.

After much planning and re-planning, Dralyuk and I finally were able to chat – about translation as it applies to various corners of culture, about so-called identity politics, the choices he’s made as editor of the LA Review Of Books, his debut collection of poetry, My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books, 2022), and about the role technology can (should) play in advancing the awareness and appreciation of languages. We also discussed current notions around expression of cultural identity; related moral panics; the value (if any) of retaining romanticized notions in art and music and the related role of context in breaking apart habitual webs of intransigence. Just what does Dralyuk think of the current (and perhaps lasting) labelling of identities? Certainly such labels matter in translation? In an essay from March, The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross noted that “(a)cknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in fact, serve as a check on the oppressive allure of nationalist mythologies.” At a time when privilege, didacticism, and binary conclusions dominate large swaths of cultural discourse, examining the complex connections between familial (and social, economic, cultural) origins and creative output is vital, translators play a crucial role in helping to facilitate (and in some cases, promote) awareness and expansion of those connections, and of fostering curiosity, comprehension, and compassion to those identities.

And, a quick if vital note: I don’t speak or read the languages Dralyuk translates (yet), but I do strongly feel that his work, especially at this point in time, is of tremendous importance. Dralyuk possesses a musician’s approach to the elements, skillfully balancing, conjuring, and highlighting tone, colour, dynamism, texture, tempo, rhythm, silence, as pace and structure dictate. He understands the complexities of technique, the labyrinthe of contexts, the connections between head and heart, and he wants to let us, the reader, into that world. Emotion is, as you’ll read, a key part of what he does. Dralyuk is a maestro of translation, but he is also (and this was confirmed in our chat), humble, funny, kind, and involved. I remain grateful for his time and energy.

Note: The following interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022. 

Boris Dralyuk, translator, Odesa, writera, poet, Ukraine, Russia, literary, LARB, LA Review Of Books, My Hollywood, editorYou’ve translated authors whose works are now more widely known, and you’ve taken part in panels on Ukraine; do you think the attention on the country and its authors will lead to an overall greater curiosity and knowledge?

I think the attention is a good thing if it’s a lasting awareness.None of this is certain yet, whether this period of newfound fascination will outlive the conflict or whether it will even, frankly, be sustained throughout this war, which shows no sign of ending. I can only rely on my personal impressions and on the things I hear from my friends, but I think the worry is that social media and the news cycle bring up new scandals and new conflict and new conflagrations every day, and they have a lifespan of their own, and it would be wonderful if the people who are advocating for and spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture, if they’re able to leverage this attention that’s been drawn to the country – for the wrong reasons – for good.

Leverage the attention in a meaningful way that technology allows for?

That’s my hope.

Very often, I see – and I’m sure you do too – these updates and opinions go by, and I always wonder how it is that we don’t have a better technological framework that would accommodate the translations you and Jenny do.

I think Jenny is more of an optimist than I’ve tended to be. I’m pretty pessimistic myself, nowadays, but let’s put it this way: let’s say you have some degree of earned respect in the world, you’ve done a few things people like, and therefore you speak with some degree of authority. If that’s the case, what you put out there, regardless of the technological channels, will reach people. Social media is powerful in that regard; these things, even poems, if well-timed – and I don’t make a study of when to post or that kind of thing, though I know some do – but if well-timed in the general sense, if they hit on something people are thinking about, and you are one of the people to whom others tend to listen on these very subjects, the thing you’re putting out there will reach someone, a good number of people. Even if you reach two or three people when you could’ve reached five, you’ve still reached two to three people. I’m not really complaining about the channels available to us, I know there are people like yourself who actively work and think about new platforms and new ways to present the cultural items we care about most in a way that might gain traction.

These new ways of presenting culture tend to bump up against the perceived legitimacy of legacy brands, but the tools at hand, which everyone uses, make changing perceptions a challenge. Being independent means you gain certain things but lose others. 

I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t intervene too heavily in the things we publish at the LA Review of Books. I edit what we accept, if not myself, then others do, but it’s a broadly-based organization and always has been. The editing is not a reflection of my personal vision – I’m not Draconian, I don’t rule like a tyrant – but where I do rule like a tyrant is at my own blog or on my social media platforms, and I regard those as a rather pure form of expression. I have a very different sense of what a successful post on my own blog means to what a successful post on LARB means. Not infrequently a poem or translation published on my blog will reach more people than it might have at the LARB website itself – and that’s because people who believe that I do something well enough to listen to me go to the place where I do it; they’re not the readers of the LA Review of Books, necessarily – they’re the readers of my translations. And over time that number of people has grown, largely thanks to my use of WordPress and Twitter.

You are your own brand in that sense.

Yes, that’s right – because I’m not thinking of how to elevate my position there. I don’t get paid for my blog posts or the translations I post there. lf I really wanted prestige I’d try to get them into the major journals and would submit widely every 6 months, and face rejection letters and do it again and again – but that’s not what matters to me. I want those translations and those poems to reach the largest possible number of readers. And so they go on my blog.

And that’s to me a crucial point about the act of translation: you want to reach people. Reaching isn’t the same as engagement...

That’s very true…

… but through reaching people you can engage with what you translate in a new and important way. When I spoke with Elena Dubinets she said she found it hard to fathom how soldiers who’d read Dostoyevsky could engage in such horrendous acts of violence – which made me ponder the ways in which culture is received and perceived according to various factors.

I think if there is a net-positive outcome here, it is a change in how we perceive Russian culture. Some people do have a starry-eyed view of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I myself do not – but I don’t think it’s a crime to think that way. I do think it can become pernicious when we associate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and their art, with a kind of purity of soul, and a purity of vision, and then assume that anyone speaking Russian must surely possess those innate qualities. That’s not a good thing. We have to be realistic, difficult though it may be. We can’t always hold ourselves to this, but we have to be realistic when we make judgments about cultures and the bearers of those cultures, whatever the culture we come from. We may love the US but hate our neighbour because our neighbour has this to say, and our mother has that to say, and the guy down the street says something else – we’re all very different, yet there are things that tie us together. The same goes for people living in Russia and living in Ukraine. At some moments those common features become the most important things in our lives – as in moments of crisis, moments like these – but in general we are all different people and all have different capacities for insight and capacities for love and capacities for hatred. Russian culture, being such a powerful force in the world, has convinced many people, too many people, that Russians are a bunch of soulful Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Pushkins, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin were themselves complicated figures, not pure of soul at all times. I think this war can make us more realistic, bring greater nuance to our understanding of the people we read and admire, of the cultures in which we’re interested.

The “nuance” aspect largely goes against the algorithms that power the platforms we use…

Yes!

… but now especially, do you feel a particular weight or responsibility to not just present new things but old things with that same nuance? And how much do you see others carrying it forwards?

I think anyone working in Ukrainian and Russian right now feels a heightened sense of responsibility. I know I certainly was much more likely to do things before this war because I was interested in them without thinking about their effect in the world. I was kind of an “art for art’s sake” purist… I mean, I have ethics, but I’ve always been interested in presenting the most … challenging, the most delightful, the most complicated, the most unusual work, in translation, regardless of the life of the man or woman who wrote it, regardless of their political affinities. It’s basically been my sense that if the work is well made, it deserves to be read, and people can make up their own minds about how terrible the person was or how terrible the things expressed in it are. I still think that’s largely where I land, but I feel I now have to be more selective, not because anyone asked me. The people I translated tend to be people who are, I think, generally, somewhat responsible – not always. But I do think that it behooves us to be careful, now, in how we present work that may be interesting but perhaps can be too easily misread or misused at the same time.

books, Boris Dralyuk, prose, writing, poetry, Russia, Ukraine, literature, reading, library

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

I’m curious how you think this relates to the music world. It’s difficult to find good translations, even with companies dedicated to performing in English; there is this sense of “well just learn” whatever language – “just” carrying a number of unfair assumptions, not least access to resources.  So how to most effectively move past these attitudes? And how do we approach translating things like libretti, which, by their very nature, resist any form of translation?

I think the technology is very much the answer. Google has taught people that translation is no easy thing, and Google Translate, yes, people knock it, but there are two things about it worth considering: one, it’s getting better every day, because of the input – every time someone asks it to translate something, it learns – and the other thing is that it reminds people every day of the need for a human touch. I think ultimately it’s a great educational tool, not only for getting the bare thing across, so some people can move about their business day, but also, if you plug in Tolstoy whole, you’ll get rubbish that’s useless unless a human being gets involved. The technology leads people to realize how important translation is. Over the last ten years or so there’s been a greater appreciation of the work of translators and that appreciation has inspired many young people – I see this every day, more and more people are asking me about my career and how I got into this. So there’s more interest in learning and mastering and communicating across languages, and the number of younger translators is growing by leaps and bounds, and that speaks to a broader interest in foreign languages.

That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the quality of translation will improve, because what you need in order to be a great translator is the ability to read very closely and very carefully, and with a lot of emotion. You have to respond emotionally to a text, and not just intellectually. You also have to have deep intellectual understanding, but you need a real love for expression – a real love for the target language. You have to revel in it and relish it. You have to find the task of writing immensely rewarding, find a lot of joy in it. People who translate simply because they love the original and are just going through the motions of putting it into English will probably not come out with as pungent or flavourful a product as those who both love the original and love the target language.

That brings to mind a common line of thinking on English: “oh it’s so limited…”

I hate that…

Really?

I really do, I hate it when people say, “Oh, well, English is a poorer language, because it doesn’t have a-b-c” – no, every language lacks something, an a, b, or c, but it makes up for that in other ways, by what it brings to the table. So you have to be in awe of the possibilities of English when you embark upon a translation – that’s how you get the best text. You don’t get it by saying, “Oh no, I’m going to lose this and that because English can’t possibly do it” – yes it can! English can do anything you want it to! That’s the attitude you’ve got to take.

By the same way of thinking, how would one translate the works of writers like Joyce or E.E. Cummings into Russian?

People have – you do it by writing Ulysses, by being a genius at your work. Those translators did a good job. That’s how Alice In Wonderland was translated into Russian – you have to have the same level of imagination and sense of possibility as Lewis Carroll had.

I love the Irish sense of playing with the language of their British colonizers – it’s a big reason I fell in love with Irish literature years ago, and underlines what Rexroth says when he explores Sappho, and gives examples of how each culture translated the same poem differently…

The Irish thing is a good example of what Ukrainians have attempted to do with the Russian language, from Gogol on – a good parallel –Isaac Babel would count, by dint of two circumstances, as a colonial subject –he’s Jewish and he’s from Ukraine. He’s a good analogy for Joyce, for speakers of Irish extraction. That’s one of the things I love most about translating the Russian language of Ukrainian speakers, which is a kind of endangered species now: they approach it from the side, as insider-outsiders, and it makes for very rich texts. I’ve spent a good deal of time on that aspect.

The insider/outsider thing is especially interesting – how much do you identify with that, as someone not born in America but raised there?

I think of myself largely as an American. So many of us weren’t born in America, and it’s a unique culture in that regard; nativism is present but isn’t the defining feature of the culture. Most of the people who have contributed mightily to the formation of American letters and culture, from the colonial period on,, were immigrants to the United States…

… which provides an interesting subtext to your “Hollywood” title of poems; it feels like a hat-tip to the many others artists who settled in that precise area.

Yes, exactly! I feel I’m a pretty good run-of-the-mill American – but yes, of course, you are also right that there is an outsider component to it. This happens to be a nation of immigrants, but that doesn’t make me anything other than an immigrant: I am still an immigrant to the United States. The story of immigration is central to the story of America, writ large.

That inclusivity stands in stark contrast to a world that quickly ostracizes those who don’t speak the language…

It happens, but I think that’s wrong – and to my mind, very dated.

It brings to mind what Rexroth noted, that translation is an act of sympathy, or to my mind, empathy.

Yes, and it’s amazing to me that that observation had to wait until 1959 to be made – I mean, it probably didn’t, I’m sure others said something similar – but it seems so natural to me that those who enjoy translation the most, the people who are the most successful at creating readable and moving texts based on texts in other languages, are using their capacity for empathy. They really do feel deeply connected to the texts they’re reading and to the people behind them. And if you don’t feel that connection, if you just sit there mechanically translating, then you may produce a more accurate version than Google Translate, but it won’t necessarily be a fuller version – or a more appealing one.

Your work has made me ask ‘who’s the translator?” through many book purchases the last little while.

That’s so lovely – that’s as it should be! I think Jenny probably did more to accomplish that than I did, but it’s important to pay attention to the translators. There are certain translators, long dead, whose work may not be perfect, but who I feel have as much of an oeuvre as that of any author, so I will read everything they’ve done, simply because I love their artistry.

That’s similar to following the work of soloists or conductors: one may not like a particular piece or opera, but one might really love the artistry of the person doing it.

That’s a perfect analogy! The soloist or conductor is an interpreter, just like the translator.

Speaking of translations and artistry: do you have a favourite translation of Bulgakov’s famous The Master and Margarita?

That’s a tough question. I think the Michael Glenny translation of 1967 is overall the more flexible and colourful, but there are glaring errors that have yet to be corrected. If somebody were to sit down, somebody who really understands the text, and use it as the start, building it out, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands.

Because you haven’t done it yet… 

I would love to edit that Glenny text, but process-wise, one way I check – it isn’t a perfect thermometer, but it works – how good a translation is, is by the impact it has on the target culture. For instance, it was the Glenny translation that gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the later translations would’ve had that influence – they’re not quite as readable as the Glenny.

I keep being told that there has yet to appear a translation which captures the humour, the rhythm…

I think that’s generally true. We’ve made a start, but we need someone to go in there and finish. Frequently I’m drawn to older translations not because they’re the most accurate in every sense, not because they capture all the tones of the original, but because the world in which those earlier translators lived is more or less the world in which the authors lived – they were contemporaries, so when the authors described something they could see with their own eyes, those translators of long ago saw those things with their own eyes too. When they were translating a description, they knew exactly what was being described. That creates a sharper image in English, a clearer sense of what it is Tolstoy is talking about, or Dostoyevsky is talking about. I would urge people not to toss out the old versions completely; you can continue to translate and refine the texts but I think those old versions have something to offer us too.

Like literary Ur-Text?

That’s right!

There is the urge now to make plain cultural labels – ie, “this is Ukrainian; that is Russian” and to draw pat conclusions based on them.

I don’t think people will hold on to that; I think it’ll go away. Right now there’s controversy about renaming streets in Ukraine. But renaming a street from Tolstoy Street has nothing to do with saying that “Tolstoy is a bad writer.” What it’s about – and this is spelled out clearly in a LARB piece – is saying: look, there’s every reason to keep reading Tolstoy; go ahead and read Tolstoy, no one’s stopping you. But there’s a reason this street was named after Tolstoy in the first place: this country was subjugated by Russia. The reason that we have so many streets named after Russian writers and none at all named after Portuguese writers is that we were not subjects of Portuguese colonization – we were subjects of Russian colonization. So by renaming these streets in honour of Ukrainian authors and cultural figures, all we’re saying is: these are our streets. If you want to sit on the street and read Tolstoy, that’s fine. It may not be a comfortable thing for those who love Tolstoy to witness, but it’s the choice of the people who live on that street. I really don’t think this hysteria about Russian culture being cancelled will be proven to have been justified. There are a lot of reasons why we should worry about all the things happening now; the fact Russian literature will lose a few more readers in the short term is not one of them.

A couple people have written to me to say, “It’s not the time for Russian voices,” and I myself have shown preferential treatment for those writing from Ukraine – it’s more important right now. People will make that kind of editorial judgment call. Yet I can’t imagine any person, no matter how patriotic they are who will say, “I will never again read anything from a Russian, ever” –even those who are militant say, “It may take five years, or ten years; it may take twenty years,” – but at some point, I think Ukrainians will be reading Russian literature, and Russians will be reading Ukrainian literature. Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to listen to Ukrainians who are under active attack rather than to most Russians. That said, I still translate Russian authors myself; I just did a translation of a piece by Maxim Osipov (“Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia“, The Atlantic, May 16, 2022). But, to be blunt, I don’t think Russians are paying that big a price, comparatively – that’s my sense of things.

Elena Dubinets also noted in our chat how the language around how we discuss these cultures must be decolonized – a word that’s been used more and more often in this context.

Yes, and decolonization is not necessarily cancellation. Again, all we’re talking about is adding nuance to our understanding of how Russian culture functions, and has functioned, and been allowed to function, in the world. Tolstoy himself is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy is another. A monument to Tolstoy on his estate is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy in a place he never visited, simply because Russia owned it, is another.

But this questioning has led to a big moral panic in some circles – certain corners of the classical world have made quite a lot of noise about how identity politics is detracting from art and music. For instance, Prokofiev was born in Eastern Ukraine; Tchaikovsky’s paternal family were Ukrainian. What do you make of the current debate around identity politics as it relates to Russian and Ukrainian artists? 

I don’t think this is identity politics – I think this is the acknowledgement of the complicated histories of this region and of the people who called and still call it home. To say that Gogol is strictly a Russian writer or strictly a Ukrainian writer would be silly – he’s obviously a Russian writer and a Ukrainian writer, and that’s a consequence of the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. I think we as lovers of culture can arrive there – many of us are already there. Right now tempers are heated, and for good reason: cultural monuments are being destroyed by bombs. The head of Shevchenko has a bullet in it.Those things are not acceptable; those things are not going to bring about truth and reconciliation. But I do feel we’ll get through this. Both of these cultures are too strong to be eradicated, and no matter how powerful the Russian military is, it will not squash Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. which was banned over several centuries yet lives on, and is one of the most productive literary cultures in Europe right now. I don’t think anyone who aims to kill the culture as part of this conflict will succeed, and once they’ve failed decisively, we can go about creating a better, more representative picture of this region’s history, and its art.

Note: This interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022. 
Adriana Gonzalez, soprano, singer, voice, opera, classical, Operalia

Adriana González: “Give Yourself Time And Space”

The extent to which concert and opera-going habits have changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is slowly becoming known. Recent announcements suggest that many organizations are playing it safe (or what they perceive as safe) in offering reams of favored classical chestnuts for 2022-2023 seasons in order to entice audiences, both old and new, back into the concert halls and opera houses. Any semblance of challenge is being left largely within the parameters of individual approaches – an interesting twist on “make your own fun”, perhaps – but one might still wish such notions (challenge, individual thought, critical thinking) hold some form of value in the post-pandemic classical landscape. I would like to believe that the idea of challenge – and its first cousin, curiosity – do indeed matter, and that whatever choices are (or be perceived as) over-cautious within future programming might be somehow reconfigured in order to open the door to more careful, contextualized listening / live experiences. As someone fascinated by how sounds transmit both verbal and non-verbal meaning, it has become a natural, near-unconscious habit to listen not passively but passionately. My ears, as I remarked to someone recently, have grown teeth; everything is evaluated with an intense energy and attention to detail. Developing incisive listening (and seeing, and evaluating) skill, however unconsciously, does not, despite being a music writer, always bring benefits; such habit is now perceived in some quarters as churlishness, over-criticism, over-analysis, even (heaven forbid), ingratitude (“You should be grateful live music is back at all!”). Yet this aural and visual approach, one now so useful amidst so many programming announcements, is not to be turned off or hidden, but rather, used in the interests of feeding curiosity, furthering inquiry, broadening the field of discovery.

Adriana Gonzalez, Iñaki Encina Oyón, melodies, Dussaut, Covatti, album, recording, piano, French, Audax, voice, vocalSo what a treat it was, to come across the album Mélodies (Audax, 2020) by soprano Adriana González and Basque pianist/conductor Iñaki Encina Oyón earlier this year. Featuring the largely-unknown songs of French composers Robert Dussaut (1896-1969) and Hélène Covatti (1910-2005), the album is a stellar showcase of González’s immense vocal talents, conveying a strong sense of the Guatemala-born soprano’s immense gift in integrating sensitive interpretation and smart technical approach; comparisons to the late Welsh soprano Margaret Price (1941-2011) come to mind, and have been rightly noted. The natural chemistry between González and Oyón share is evident through album’s 22 tracks, with the soprano’s coloration, phrasing, and textures matched by the pianist’s poetic tempos, touch, and dynamism, creating a luscious showcase of the hauntingly beautiful writing of each of the respective composers. “Adieux à l’étranger (1922) is a wistful work, Dussaut’s writing recalling the lyrical qualities of Massenet, while Covatti’s “Berceuse” shows clear connections to Ravel and De Falla; in each, González’s skillfully modulates voice and dynamics with and around Oyón’s delicate, intuitive playing. Mélodies is a very rewarding, very captivating listen, one that provides a wonderful introduction to both the composers and to Gonzalez’s larger talents, tantalizingly hinting at the explosive intensity which she so ably channels in live performance.

Winner of the First and Zarzuela Prizes at the Operalia competition in 2019, González has performed with Oper Frankfurt, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Opéra de Toulon, Opéra national de Lorraine, Opera Naţională Română Timişoara. Most recently she made her American debut with Houston Grand Opera, singing the role of Juliette in Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette opposite tenor Michael Spyres. This month sees Gonzalez perform Verdi’s Requiem in Portugal, a work she will perform again later this year with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; other roles next season include Michaela in Carmen (with Dutch National Opera, Paris Opera, and with Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège) and as Echo in Gluck’s Écho et Narcisse with Opéra Royal, Versailles. Having become a member of the Atelier Lyrique of the Paris Opera in 2014, González has developed a wide repertoire, one that hews to her rich if highly flexible lyric soprano style, with an emphasis on Mozart, Rossini, and Puccini so far. That doesn’t mean she isn’t prepared to expand her fach, but she does it with maximum awareness of her instrument – its demands, its realities, the stamina required and the ways it can be fostered with grace and sensitivity, all whilst simultaneously exercising a clear artistic curiosity. González’s recital with Oyón earlier this year in Dijon featured music from her Dussaut/Covatti album, as well as music by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), Fernando Obradors (1897-1945), Frederic Mompou (1893-1987), as well as songs from her recent album, Albéniz: Complete Songs (Audax), a 30-track exploration of the Spanish composer’s varied vocal oeuvre. Released last October and rightly nominated for an 2022 International Classical Music Award (ICMA), the album is a seamless integration of chemistry, technique, and artistry with González again delivering a stunning display of her immense vocality and feeling for the art of song.

Adriana González, Iñaki Encina Oyón, Albeniz. album, recording, piano, Spanish, Audax, voice, vocal, songsAs I learned when we spoke recently, González, while highly aware of her powerful, affecting sound, is also aware of her desire to stretch, explore, and cultivate her talent creatively, with a firm hold of context at every step. We started off discussing what it was like to quickly step into the role of Liù for a performance of Turandot in Houston, as she was concurrently performing Juliette. Stress, what stress? González seems too focused a performer to let nerves ever get the best of her, and her recollection of the experience was coloured more by a mix off excitement, disbelief, and gratitude than any dregs of self-doubt. González is as much earthy as she is studious, and that intensity I referenced earlier is, as ever, always in the service of a knowing approach to craft. Such a combination of ingredients makes for a meal that satisfies toothsome ears, and for a very rewarding form of listening amidst post-pandemic times.

When I learned about your quickly stepping into the role of Liù I reviewed my 2019 conversation with conductor Carlo Rizzi about Turandot, who called that character the heart of the opera. What was it like to step into that world so quickly?

Musically it was quite something – but I didn’t do the staging. They had me singing from the side and had an actor doing the staging tagging because Robert Wilson’s Turandot is very precise in terms of movements. The actress didn’t know the music really well, so (the production team) were talking to her through an earpiece and she had someone telling her, “Walk here, do this, do that, step left, one step back – no you stepped too far” – for her I can’t imagine what it was like. For me of course Liù is such a different vocality from Juliette, it was like, “Okay, go for it!” In Roméo et Juliette I thought, “Keep it proper, it’s French” and with Puccini, well, it’s home very much for me vocally, but I hadn’t sung Liù since 2019 and in doing it recently I thought, “Oh my voice has really grown, it’s changed, this feels different” – so that was wonderful. And the conductor, Eun Sun Kim, is amazing; every entrance was so clear, she would be waiting attentively at other moments; she knows the text of everything. She was there every step. It was like, “I know my part but I’m glad you do too!”

You said in a past interview that in preparing for a role you go over the vowel sounds and various details of vocalizing. What has it been like for you to examine the sounds within the text – has your process changed? I’m thinking here specifically of your doing Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in Paris in 2019.

Iolanta was difficult because I don’t speak Russian and it was a secondary role – it was Brigitta, one of her nurses, and it was one of the contracts I did from the studio years in Paris. I had to do it but otherwise, I would be very skeptical to choose a role in an opera which is written in a language I don’t speak, because I find you really need to learn the language, you need to understand the cultural context and background from which the words originate. French is great for me: I know all the expressions; I find humour. When you see the phrases in opera, used in day to day, you can react better, just from an acting point of view –you can react better and propose things knowing the meaning of the text, from a technical and vocal technique point of view. You need to know the meaning of the word to know what kind of colour and what kind of nuance works also. For example, if you’re saying “I’m hesitating” then you don’t want to say “hesitating” or the feeling it implies so beautifully, it’s a feeling that doesn’t reflect something good – maybe it can be a good thing in the long run, but in the moment hesitation is doubt, it’s a feeling of unbalanced things. This is a lot of the thought process – you need to find a way of expressing that feeling clearly. And then of course we singers, we do these sounds and feelings through vowels, not through consonants specifically, so if you have vowel sounds, you need to make them a bit more acid if you are expressing a certain feeling, and you need to do it in a way so the whole experience of the word comes through. That’s the background we singers need to do even years before we start, just looking at the role and singing the role, because it’s muscular training you have to do to find those colours, and so you don’t get in trouble. You can’t do colours and really go for it with just your acting instinct. You have to take care of yourself, so that when you do those colours you’re not hurting your instruments. It’s a balance.

When I spoke with Etienne Dupuis earlier this year, he said how doing Don Carlos opened the door to many new things he hadn’t experienced singing it prior in Italian, but I wonder about the “acid sounds” – how much might such a vocal choice disturb perceptions of beauty in opera? If you’re concerned about making the expected “beautiful” sound you risk flattening the drama into this heterogeneous sonic mass, but committing to the sounds you describe means risking the way you – and your voice – are perceived by those who hold fast to notions of ‘the beautiful’ as paramount.

Tamara Wilson, who is amazing Turandot, dares to go piano, and it’s in those moments where you can really see Turandot’s vulnerability – and hearing that approach changes absolutely everything. It’s no longer this sort of scream-and-fight cliché– her performance has this power and this contrast, but also has length: the role is long enough that she can showcase all the colours she has. For some singers it is sometimes difficult. I did four years of young artist programs, and it was through that experience that I learned short roles can be just as hard; in a long role you have to pace yourself –when to do what –you have this amazing amount of time to showcase your whole palette. But with a short role, it’s just that little bit of time – I did a small role in Rigoletto, for instance – in which you can’t show a lot, but definitely when you have a longer role you make decisions on how to showcase the beauty but also the anguish, because opera is very much about real life. There are sad moments –you want to make people cry and think about beauty – but it also has to be real emotion. It can’t be beautiful all the time; there has to be a balance between the elements. There has to be a balance between where and how you choose the moments to really go for pain, and all else.

This speaks to theatre, does it not? To the power of theatre?

Yes!

Theatre is firmly part of what opera is, and indeed these operas – Turandot is Carlo Gozzi via Friedrich Schiller, by way of Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni; Roméo et Juliette is Shakespeare by way of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Do you, alongside opera recordings, examine the plays and/or performances of plays as part of your preparation?

I did read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and I also heard an audio book performance of it, to hear the inflections of the language, and to hear how the pain of certain scenes was expressed through the words – some of those inflections of text were so powerful. I also listened because of (curiosity around) the stage movement; the Houston production has specific stage movement; we had to train to do and we rehearsed, but I find if the emotion and intention are clear, then that helps you, no matter how you move, no matter the specifics. The intention of the action is there in the background. I definitely went through that process and got a good feeling: “Okay this is a painful moment” Also it was good to compare Shakespeare to what Gounod took for his final libretto – it’s very different. There are varying characters who are emphasized or not emphasized, and the family feud (in Gounod) is in the background compared to what Shakespeare presents. Also I couldn’t help but notice Juliet’s cheekiness – she’s very cheeky in Shakespeare; Gounod’s Juliette is more fragile and sentimental.

How much was working with Michael Spyres (as Roméo) an aid to the process?

From the first day Michael and I clicked really well. I’m a World Youth Choir baby – I did that really young, that’s what sort of got me to Europe – and I had always heard about Michael Spyres, as he was also in that choir as a kid. We’d heard of each other too – all of our friends know each other but we hadn’t actually met ourselves, but then we did and it was like, “You! Yes, you!” We clicked immediately – it was a wonderful meeting. Working with him was fabulous. He’s such a professional, he knows how to manage his instrument and be expressive, and he’s so much about the text also. It was a beautiful and natural collaboration. Even outside of the duos, he’s someone who really listens to what you’re doing – I listen to what he’s doing also. The first time we did a run-through, we did it one way; the second time was comp different because we were listening to each other so intently, so we felt good to make changes already. He’s a wonderful colleague. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful Roméo. Even without verbal language, it is so clear we are so much on the same page.

Adriana Gonzalez, soprano, singer, opera, classical, stage, Houston Grand Opera, Michael Spyres, Romeo et Juliette, Gounod, romantic, chemistry, duet

Michael Spyres and Adriana González in Romeo and Juliet at Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Lynn Lane.

Singers often emphasize chemistry – either it’s there or it isn’t. That’s important in a romantic opera, I should think… ?

It is important! It’s also a thing connected to life experiences. Talking with Michael, we’ve shared a lot of life experience, him and the countries he’d lived in, and me from Guatemala. Certain experiences create a certain way of thinking. Even if we grew up in different countries, he’ll say something about what he saw and I’ll say, “Hey, that happens in my country too!” So the life experiences are shared and create the way you behave and interact. That was also something that added to our work relationship.

And somehow the details, as you say, fall away. When you are doing this kind of project you can still come from your different places with all the related cultural backgrounds, but the meeting point somehow still exists, and that meeting happens in opera, and on record. Your album of Dussaut-Covatti is a good example, though I confess I hadn’t heard of the composers before hearing it…

That’s totally normal!

I don’t feel so bad now…

Don’t feel bad, seriously!

When you refer to chemistry, that is something definitely evident with your pianist, Iñaki Encina Oyón, through these songs; why make an album of their work?

I’m glad the complicity Iñaki and I have comes through. Now why do I say it’s normal not to know these composers? Because they are very unknown! The project came out of a very personal project for Iñaki and myself; the two composers, Dussaut and Covatti, are the parents of Iñaki’s piano teacher from Toulouse. When he left Spain he studied piano and conducting in Toulouse, and his piano teacher was the pianist Thérèse Dussaut (b. 1939), daughter of Hélène Covatti and Robert Dussaut. Thérèse doesn’t have children and she is getting older, and at the time she said to him, “Hey you know a lot of singers, why don’t you take my parents’ music and see what you can do with it?” Iñaki has such a curious brain, he loves to read and discover old composers, he digs for music all day, and one day he said, “Adriana let’s sight-read this.” The songs fit my voice so perfectly – the way it’s written was perfect with the tessitura and with the French. We went on to have a lot of fun performing them in recital. One day we decided to record them because otherwise, we worried they’d be lost to history – most were manuscripts, so we made a new edition of the scores, and recorded the album. The composers have so many other works – and Robert Dussaut was awarded the Grand Prix De Rome, the biggest composition prize you can win in France, he got it back in 1924 – it’s a prize Gounod won also; although Gounod only got it the second time he applied (in 1839, for the cantata Fernand), and Dussaut won it the first time around. It was music that had also not been done, and so it was wonderful to not be compared to anyone else and do something not done ten-thousand times already. The record label, Audax, is also independent, and their slogan is “Stay Curious” – they basically do unknown works, mainly Baroque and instrumental things, but are slowly taking on voice also.

As to Iñaki, that starts World Youth Choir also, like Michael. In 2012 Iñaki was the Assistant Conductor of the project and I was a choir person who did a solo, which I auditioned for. He heard me and said, “Where do you come from? What is this voice? Where did you train?” I said, “I want to sing Mimi!” I was 18 or 19 years old, and he said, “You know there’s the opera studios…” He informed me of all of these programs and how things work in Europe. I’d never left Guatemala – and a year later he invited me to Paris to do a production with him and invited the director of the Paris opera studio with whom he’s very good friends – Christian Schirm – and they got me the audition for the Paris casting people. It turns out they needed a Zerlina for the studio and took me in and asked me subsequently to stay in the program. And, all of that happened because of Iñaki, and his selflessness in wanting to help young talent. So I really owe him everything, he’s a wonderful friend and travels where I am singing – he came from Paris to Houston to see my Juliette debut, for instance. He’s really a close friend. So when you say the chemistry comes through on the album, that is really a wonderful compliment! We worked so hard on that album, and to express what’s written in the scores.

And now you’re shifting gears entirely, to Verdi’s Requiem. How do you prepare for something like this, especially something you’ll be performing across different continents?

When I accepted I thought, wait, should I have taken a longer pause between things? But it’s definitely something I did not want to turn down – the first one in Portugal at the end of May came as a proposal from Lorenzo Viotti. His sister Marina Viotti is doing the mezzo solo and she is one of my best friends. I thought, I’m not missing this opportunity to perform with my friend, and especially when it’s a first time for both of us! And also with her brother, I thought, really I can’t say no to this – so I will try to pace myself.

For singers, as a bit of context here, we are athletes, so we have to train vocally how we’ll use our muscles for the different types of writing from different types of composers. Gounod is different, specifically Juliette, to Verdi anything, of course. The wonderful thing is that the Verdi Requiem, if you look at the score, has many piani written and you have to keep a more slim position, a certain sort of throat opening, let’s say it that way – you can’t go full throttle, and doing a role like Juliette has helped keep that youth in the voice. Also having done a rebel kind of a Juliette has helped build the stamina for doing the Verdi Requiem, even with such different writing styles. I’ve learned the whole of the music and I’ll have a week to switch over from the Gounod to the Verdi – it’ll be a lot of training over that week. I’m slowly adapting my muscles and stretching them in a different way so I’ll be prepared to do Verdi. It’s such an iconic piece, and there’s been lots of reading, lots of analyzing, considering how to phrase the music – how to place this or that vowel; how to breathe in this place or that; how to make the larynx go into position so I can get a specific colour at a certain point –and how to get there fresh, so I can achieve that sound needed at the end of the Requiem but still have this sound of youth for the beautiful phrases at the very beginning.

Stamina is the right word  – but it’s a different kind of stamina required for Verdi’s work rather than Gounod’s. How might this experience and the preparation for it carry over into future roles?

It takes a lot – but you do think about it: what decisions to make when; what roles to take on; what do I want to do in the next five years. My voice will go into Verdi repertoire. I want to still enjoy the roles I’m doing now – Mimi, Liù, the Contessa, Fiordiligi. A Desdemona in the middle would be wonderful too…

That’s a role I’d love to hear you do.

It’s one I’m really looking forward to doing – and I am going in that direction, slowly. It is where my voice is headed – but you need to know how to pace yourself. In past times singers would do 60 shows a year for one role; now it’s like, we do 4 shows… and, can we do more, please? It takes so much time and effort and knowledge and, again, time… to prepare a role and then you do 4 shows, and you think, well, I hope I get to do this more!

That’s why the covid era was so devastating; singers trained five years out for roles in operas that were cancelled or moved. I want to believe the industry learned something from that time, but I’m not so sure… what’s your take?

It’s definitely been a time that’s made us think slower, so we were not just jumping around from one thing to another without a thought. It’s been a reminder of the importance of taking the time to do your things with dedication – dedicating time to the music, time and energy the music deserves, not jumping from one thing to another, but just focusing on one thing. Do that one thing wonderfully, then close the book, turn the page, go to the next thing. It’s very important to be this deliberate, and it’s the key for a long career also, to do one thing at a time, and to focus on it, and give yourself time and space also. I mean, God knows before in the opera world, in the Golden Age as it’s called, travel wasn’t that fast, it took how long to get to the American continent from Europe –you had days to recover from your performances, and you would travel on the boat, and then have a production in the US. Rehearsals were different also, so much was at a slower pace. There’s a lot to remember and to think about from that era in terms of taking time to enjoy things, and to enjoy the music itself.

Top photo: Marine Cessat-Bégle
Elena Dubinets, LPO, classical, music, leadership, management

Elena Dubinets: Ukraine, Russia, And Émigré Artists

Throughout my series of essays over the past three months examining various cultural, musical , and media-related aspects concerning the war in Ukraine, the one thing that seemed just out of reach was a direct view on the act of departure – or the act of remaining – from or in one’s place of birth. Recent events, most notably those around so-called “Victory Day” in Russia, have served to underline the changing realities around leaving and staying, in both tangible and intangible ways.

Russia’s list of émigré composers is lengthy; the reasons for their departure (and in some cases, return) relating to socio-cultural, financial, and political circumstances and opportunities. Perhaps the most notable Russian non-Russian, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) could only explore his culture through being away from it, not unlike his literary counterpart, the Ireland-born, Europe-living James Joyce (1882-1941). Stravinsky’s relentless curiosity and his willingness to experiment with elements of the Russia he’d left behind in various ways – milking, mocking, embracing, tossing aside those sonic elements, and surgically excising the clichés even as he sentimentally held on to their other, more personal aspects – feels, in retrospect, like a quilted instruction manual of artistic fortitude and spiritual survival. He is one of the composers examined in Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (The Boydell Press, 2012), authors Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker. The authors incisively feature a quote used by Soviet musicologist Yuri Keldysh (1907-1995), who is himself quoting critic/pianist/composer V. G. Karatygin (1875-1925), with relation to speculations on the roots of Stravinsky’s work: “The artist, while his art reflects a soul that has been splintered and corroded by neurasthenic impression, is fatigued at the same time by all this nervous tension and seeks out an antidote in the knowing return to simplicity.” Social relations, posit the authors, relate to this tension: “The less the facts of public life pointed towards hopeful outcomes, the more these demands were placed on art. Some strong and vivid external impulses were needed for this.” Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, premiered in 1911 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, reflects a dualism which became more varied if concentrated in its expression once Stravinsky embraced his émigré status. Keldysh’s observations on the work’s symbolism hold modern echoes:

By way of contrast to the noisy, notley crowd, there is Petrushka, with his sufferings and his broken heart, expressed through his convulsive rhythms and angular melodies. A wooden doll, a mere puppet, turns out to have feelings too. We have an opposition here: on the one hand, an apparently lifeless puppet jerking mechanically on his strings but capable of refined and complex feelings, and on the other hand we have the living but soulless crowd; this opposition bore a social meaning that responded perfectly to the mood of the intelligentsia during the period of reaction following 1905. A complete withdrawal from active social struggle, a forlorn subjectivism, a dissatisfaction with reality – all these were expressed through the passivity of a moribund psyche, embodied by the image of the suffering Harlequin. The bright colours of Petrushka’s folk scenes, is thus only a superficial element that throws the inner psychological content into relief.” (p. 244-245)

The bright colours seen in recent news reports, as well as across the social media pages of various Moscow-living musical figures, might be viewed thusly, with the realities of those who have left the country making for a far more grim, far less click-friendly presentation. Writer Masha Gessen captured the contemporary experience of departure thusly: “The old Russian émigrés were moving toward a vision of a better life; the new ones were running from a crushing darkness. […] As hard as it is to talk about guilt and responsibility, it’s harder to figure out what the people who used to make up Russia’s civil society should do now that they are no longer in Russia.” (“The Russians Fleeing Putin’s Wartime Crackdown”, The New Yorker, March 20, 2022) It must be noted, of course, that there are varying levels of the experience of tragedy, and that no equivalency can or should exist between Russian émigrés and those fleeing Ukraine. In an exchange with Ilya Venyavkin, who is a historian of the Stalin era, Gessen makes this point explicit: “Now that this parallel society was gone, Venyavkin could think only of the future, which had become strangely clearer. “I refuse to look at this as some kind of personal disaster,” he said. “Disaster is what’s happening in Ukraine.” (The New Yorker, March 20, 2022).

These readings, combined with observations of the numerous concerts, benefits, and tours recently, have been powerful reminders of the ways in which people respond to trauma, particularly those within the creative sphere. Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka wrote about such trauma in his 2000 paper The Ambivalence of Social Change: Triumph or Trauma? (Polish Sociological Review , 2000, No. 131 (2000), pp. 275-290). He expertly examines the coping mechanisms through which various traumatic situations and events might turn into what he terms a “mobilizing force for human agency” and catalyze “creative social becoming.” Aside from the fascinating examinations of the rise of moral panics (more on that in a future essay), Sztompka quotes American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) in his four adaptations to anomie, a term with particular currency. Merton had postulated possible consequences to social strain, elements which could be experienced via the misalignment of individual or collective ambitions, and the circumstances in realizing them. These elements formed the basis of his famous strain theory, published in 1938 in the American Sociological Review. Piotr Sztompka (b.1944, Warsaw) adapted Merton’s ideas to cultural trauma thusly as innovation; rebellion; ritualism; retreatism, elements which he discusses at length in excellent paper, written a scant decade into post-Soviet life. I fully credit Marina Frolova-Walker for the introduction to Sztompka’s work; in an online lecture last month, she provided a wonderful introduction to these concepts within the context of her own post-Soviet musical analyses. It is the innovation aspect to which I am the most interested presently, one I suspect possesses the greatest resonance within the post-pandemic realities of the classical sphere. Certainly innovation (or its lack) is a concept relevant to the many new season announcements by orchestras and opera houses of late; just how those “reimaginings” will manifest, in light of pandemic and war, remains to be seen.

Thus it was that Sztompka’s ideas, together with the currently cautious cultural climate, that I was inspired to reread Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned (Indiana University Press, 2021), by Elena Dubinets, with a fresh, curious view. As well as being an author, Dubinets is the Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), a position she began in September 2021.  A self-described Jew from Moscow with a Ukrainian spouse, Dubinets has a length and very impressive CV. She worked as Vice President of Artist Planning and Creative Projects at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for 16 years, where she also played a central role in producing and co-founding the orchestra’s in-house label. The trained musicologist was also a Chair of the City of Seattle Music Commission (appointed by the Seattle City Council), a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Washington’s School of Music, and was Chief Artistic Officer at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra before accepting her position with the LPO. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Dubinets has taught in her native Russia, as well as in Costa Rica and the United States, the country where she and her family moved in 1996. Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned examines the movement of both Soviet and post-Soviet composers within the greater paradigm of socio-political identities, ones which shifted and morphed, or not, according to geography and circumstance. Connections in and around these inner and outer realities are ones Dubinets takes particular care with; such investigations have pointed resonance to the current, perilous displacements and journeys being made by so very many. Utilizing a myriad of references and quotations from a variety of sources (including composers Boris Filanovsky, Anton Batagov, Serge Newski and Dmitri Kourliandski) Dubinets examines the 20th and 21st-century diasporic musical landscapes through wonderfully contextualized lenses of history, culture, finance, socio-religious beliefs and practises, and old and current politics, as well as the ways in which identity can and does change according to a combination of these factors.

In a Chapter titled “The “Social” Perspective”, Dubinets features an exchange she shared with composer Mark Kopytman (b. 1929-2011), outlining the cultural explorations and varied journeys which were seminal to his creative identity. Born in Ukraine, Kopytman graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and went on to work at conservatories in then-Soviet Moldova and Kazakhstan. Kopytman emigrated to Israel in 1972, where his ascent at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance (Jerusalem), from Professor, to Dean, then to Deputy Head, gave him a unique perspective on his past experiences and then-current path. He told Dubinets that his understanding of his own Jewish roots stemmed from his study of Yemenite folklore, which led directly to various compositions integrating various histories and traditions. “Would Kopytman have developed his Jewish identity had he stayed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Moldova? Most certainly not.” (p. 139) Dubinets also examines the important if often overlooked act of return. Given the current circumstances and the related antagonisms connected to speaking out against the war or not, these observations hold particular poignancy:

There is a heightened sensitivity among Russian returnees about the resentment they perceive to be directed toward them, and some clearly remember the antagonism and even discrimination they experienced when they came back […] Having studied the emigration-related consequences of the Balkan conflict, Anders Stefansson observed that relationships between emigrants and those who stayed behind often provoked the strongest outbursts of frustration and anger, even more than their memories of violence or the stigma of refugee life. The notion of Otherness and nonbelonging developed in these situations in relation to one’s territorial kin and the sense of former national unity did not guarantee welcome, tolerance, or even basic acceptance. Emigrants – many of whom later tried to return – fell from favor in the homeland and were treated as both social and cultural foreigners and national defectors. (p. 290-291)

The notion of “Russian”-ness needs to be re-examined, Dubinets posits, as she skillfully untangles the fraught web of Soviet and post-Soviet musical identities, and the twisting social connections therein. Her thoroughness and conversational writing style lend a cohesiveness that illuminates Eastern creative landscapes as well as those further afield; Dubinets puts her business acumen to good use in examining aspects of marketing, criticism, and “value” as ascribed to musicians across varying social fields, and related locales. This is a book of nuance, not of binaries, a timely work that moves past the noise of reductionism. Dubinets provides meaningful investigation into the realities of creative life amidst the current sea of both manufactured and real outrage, of profitable obfuscation and polemical thought, creating a myriad of vital understandings and illuminations of musical life, insights which are especially valuable in a time of war.

We spoke at the end of April (2022), about war, identity, and much else.

How do you see musical Russian musical identity now, especially within the wider umbrellas of socio-political and cultural shifts?

Elena Dubinets, book, author, Russian, Ukrainian, diaspora, composers, classical, historyI think the definition needs to change – it needs to be decolonized, yes. How we do it is a different story. It will take many generations, I’m afraid, to bring it to something different, because the definition is so established in our minds due to the fact that the idea of Russia as a whole has been perpetuated in the hands of successive governments, not just the current one but prior ones. They made that cultural identity a soft weapon for the country, and the Russian world, so to speak. I’m not sure if you speak Russian, but there’s a term that’s been widely used by Putin’s government, “Russkiy mir“, in order to include any Russian-speaking person on the planet. This was striking for me to realize when I was beginning to do my research about the music of émigré composers: wherever they’d go they’d do Russian music based only on their language. They could be from Georgia, Estonia, from Ukraine of course, or from Russia, but wherever they were placed on the globe, the perception is that they were Russians.

I have a similar story myself: back in Russia when I was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, I did a dissertation on American music, and when I moved to the U.S. and people realized I was speaking Russian and a musicologist, everybody who got in contact with me assumed I was a specialist in Russian music itself – and I was not. I had to slightly go with the flow, but it was an assumption that was quite often put on people and they became labeled with it. Typically this is what the current Russian government wants, and what they organized way before the war, in the late 1990s; Putin then strengthened it, but they organized these meetings of Russians abroad, so to speak, and created certain organizations for supporting the development of Russian culture and Russian music abroad. These associations were especially strong in the UK and they were run by Russian state organizations, so it was an intentional effort to broaden the scope of the government, and to put us all under the same umbrella, regardless of our differences. And it didn’t work, this idea of Russian culture.

… and now it’s biting many people back. Various forms of identity are part of the public discourse now, and identity politics, traditionally seen as being the purview of the West, are being applied in the very place that would resist them most. I wonder what you think about that, particularly within the broader scope of what is being programmed for future seasons? Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kyiv), for instance, specifically identifies as a Ukrainian composer. 

Well, there are ethnic identities, some want to change them, stick to them, become something else, not all want to be presented as Russian or Ukrainian. Silvestrov specifically wants to be considered a Ukrainian composer because this is his passion, this is what he dedicated his life to. Others will tell you, “I am a composer. I am not a Russian composer.” The same goes for women composers: “I am not a woman-composer; I am a composer.” And so… I’m in favour of people somehow identifying what they do themselves, rather than us putting them in a corner, and trying to label them with certain things that sometimes even we don’t understand. What is indeed “Russian”? It’s really hard to explain to those who are far removed from that state and culture, and for some of us, even the word “Russian” can be understood differently, because there are different words for it. One word can be translated to mean it’s a state-related identity, like Russia as a country-state – “We are Russians because we belong to the state in one way or another” – but another word can be translated as a cultural identity, a language-related identity, which would have nothing to do with the state. In my book I have discussed this concept, and the idea of cultural affiliation – it might be a useful concept to consider instead, to replace the other, much more questionable forms of national identification. What I mean by that is some people simply can’t or don’t want to be singularly associated with the state, or another state, not just Russian; it’s an idea which is applicable to all countries. You might have seen the names in my book, composers like Tszo Chen Guan (b. 1945, Shanghai), who is from China, or Lantuat Nguen (Nguyễn Lân Tuất; b. 1935, Hanoi), who is  from Vietnam – they learned Russian, it’s not their first or even their second language but they moved into Russia, and became Russian citizens. And for that reason they had to be affiliated with that specific culture and learn how to accommodate its main stipulations. They started writing Russian overtures and Russian symphonies, and went on to other cultural affiliations. So there is a way to be attached to a country even if you are not really born there.

What I’m trying to conceptualize is that the binary concepts of inclusion vs exclusion, belonging vs otherness, acceptance vs intolerance – these concepts are becoming outdated because the world has changed so much. We are on the move; we are learning new cultures. And we want to be considered as individuals rather than attached to any identity politics.

Context moves against those binary notions, although the nature of contemporary publishing is such that context is thrown off in favor of binary thinking, because it means more clicks, more views, immediate reaction; outrage. I was thinking about this when I read Kevin Platt’s op-ed in The New York Times, which made me consider composer Elena Langer (b. 1974, Moscow), whose work you write about and have programmed as part of the LPO’s 2022-2023 season. How much do you think the idea of redefinition matters? Redefinition moves against binary reductiveness, but it requires flexibility to implement. How do you cultivate that?

I think after the pandemic we have received this very unusual level of flexibility – because we had to change everything for two seasons and we had to do it on the fly, according to each situation. This season we had at least five weeks in a row when we had to make considerable changes in our programming for multiple reasons, not only covid-related but we had a storm – there were all kinds of things, and one of them was the war. For me this ability to change programming and to change, to react to the surrounding world, is absolutely necessary. I have always been troubled by the inertia of arts organizations, and particularly opera houses and symphony orchestras; we have to plan very early, at least two to three years out, and with the opera houses, it’s even more, it’s up to five years out they plan, and that’s in order to ensure availability of composers, singers, directors, conductors – everybody possible – but covid changed all of it. All the plans got shifted. Organizations are still rescheduling and will be accommodating those whose performances got cancelled during covid, for a while, but priorities are also changing, so now I’m asking myself: what should I prioritize? A piece by a Ukrainian composer or one that was cancelled during covid? I’m enjoying the flexibility this time gives us because the audiences expect that kind of flexibility; they got trained by cancellations, which is a strange thing to say. We’d print our brochures and send them out in the “before times”, and we’d stick to what was in those brochures for the rest of the year; this is what people expected from us and we were proud we could satisfy their expectations. But it all went astray, and now if I ask somebody, “What concert are you coming to here next week?” they often get confused – the programmes have been so regularly changed. And that’s the beauty of the situation, this is terrific actually, because we can swiftly implement something that hadn’t been in the plans but can be responsive to the moment.

I wonder if that relates to the first facet of cultural trauma as outlined by Piotr Sztompka, innovation, a concept that feels especially important now. Your choice of quotes from critics in both North America and the UK in your book  made me wonder how much innovation does or doesn’t travel across the ocean, particularly post-pandemic.

It’s coming, slowly! It’s much much slower than what we are used to in North America, and I’m still struggling with the fact that sometimes I have to explain very simple things to my colleagues in London. They didn’t live through BLM (Black Lives Matter), or, they didn’t have a similar experience of it; that time was a very, very different thing for them. It was mostly distant; music people here heard about it but didn’t internalize it. In the States it’s impossible not to think about it, but in the U.K., it’s largely, at least in the cultural sector, “Oh right, that.” It is slow to get it into the fabric of our thinking about classical music, and you know, we need a number of pioneers who will lead the way, like for example, my orchestra has been working closely with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) – they are definitely leading the way, they know about BLM and what they should be doing, but you know, they need to continue convincing the constituents. There are other organizations the LPO works with who are educators, they are groups who are very passionate – they don’t do programming themselves but work with the institutions who do. So I think the more of this work there is, the better it will be. The consensus exists that change has to come but they haven’t gone through things yet.

The UK is much more attuned with the concept of sustainability, however. People use public transportation here more than in North America. There, my team was trying to consider what could be done in terms of greener orchestra attendance, and because everybody uses cars it’s just not possible, but really, it’s one of those things we have to think about. It’s what we do, after all, it’s a life form – people have to physically attend – and In the U.S, to do so they have to drive, whereas in the UK it’s much more about trains, even when we’re on tour. We work with venues on certain aspects of that much more so than counterparts in the U.S. do.

One thing I appreciate your acknowledging during the recent LPO season preview recently is the overall insularity of the classical music world – “our small and somewhat isolated classical community” as you put it – but do you think that bubble is breaking up now, however slightly?

We’ve been observing a pretty interesting process here, but sadly we still can’t qualify it. What we’ve noticed this season, when we came back with the first season of live performance after the pandemic, was that many people got used to watching us online, because we had organized a major series of concerts. We streamed 35 concerts online, the same number we’d normally perform live at the Royal Festival Hall. People were receiving it in the comfort of their homes and they got used to it. Many say it’s a very different experience than when they come for live concerts, that they get something else, they get a different type of engagement – but not all of them decided to come back (live). Some of them are still worried about their health; some live too far away; there is a constituency that hasn’t returned.

However, there is a completely new group of people and it’s mostly younger people who show up randomly at our concerts. We always understand how many are coming, it used to be so subscription-based that we’d know a year out how many would come, but it’s not the case anymore; people really don’t buy until the last minute now, but they do come and they are extremely enthusiastic A recent concert with Renée Fleming is a good example. Of course she’s a star, but it felt like a rock concert! People were screaming, they were young people too – it was stunning for me to see. I’ve worked with her before, in many orchestras, but it was a totally different planet, this concert. So I’m constantly asking myself if this is what we are getting because of the covid and the streaming, if this is why people are so much more embracing of programming changes and of new music and of things they’ve not heard before – I hope this is the case. I do hope we have obtained new audiences somehow after the pandemic, but we still don’t have any statistical data.

I had a conversation with classical marketing consultant David Taylor recently and we discussed how low prices do not inspire younger audience attendance – it could be free but they wouldn’t go – it’s the experience itself, of offering something that can’t be had online.

I totally agree, and I know things we’ve learned about, that we understand what may or may not bring them in that regard. We had an Artist-In-Residence this year, Julia Fischer, who did all five Mozart violin concerti, and we had half-houses for all these concerts. Now if you asked our marketing department three years ago about this they would have said, “That’s a definitive sellout, continue doing only this stuff and then we’ll be all set with our budgets” – but people didn’t show up this time. They showed up for some random and obscure performances we hadn’t budgeted for accordingly, so yes, they come unexpectedly. It’s hard to understand at this point, as I said.

That’s part of the innovation aspect with relation to the cultural responses to trauma, seeking new experiences after two years of watching behind a monitor, although there are many who still choose to do so, whether because of economics or health, or a combination of both. It behoves many cultural organizations not to take those audiences – or how we choose to enjoy concerts – for granted.

That’s true – it’s why our goal with programming has been and will remain in balancing our repertory and offerings; we know that younger people are predisposed to new things and older people mostly prefer their blockbusters, and we’re also going back to the habit of explaining musical experiences – that is, our conductors speak from the stage. I want to say that for almost a decade such a thing was considered a no-go: “Music should speak for itself,” many would say. But now people seem to have the desire to learn more, and how do you learn if you have all possible restrictions? I’m always annoyed the lights go down during performances to such an extent it’s impossible to read the program books – you just can’t see them – and also the small type is very unfriendly. On the other hand younger people can open cell phones and read the notes online but it is too bright in the auditorium to do that, and we make a point to tell them they can’t use their devices during performances. It is an unfriendly art form in many ways when it comes to educating people about music and educating them about the experiences they have paid money to hear, so we are now beginning to talk more openly about doing pre-concert lectures and doing quick introductions from the stage right before the music. Of course we’ll be using digital means going forward as well, that’s important, we really want people to come back! They vote with their feet, and if they don’t like something, they don’t come back.

But you are also filling in the holes for an education system that has been continually underfunded over many decades. I am not sure all classical organizations themselves think of their mission this way; I recently read about a festival featuring the music of Rachmaninoff and the language consisted largely of clichéd notions of “Russian” music. Is this, I thought, how we should talk about him (or any Russian composer) anymore? It seems so outdated.

We played Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony on the third day of the war – that concert was called “From Russia With Love” and consisted entirely of Russian music: Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Second. I actually had to go onstage and say something because it was unimaginable to do the concert without any framing of it, without putting it within the current situation, whereby it could have been just cancelled outright. We could have done just that, but people bought tickets; they wanted to hear this music. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) has never associated himself with Putin, and I thought, “Why would we cancel it? We just have to position it properly.”

So we played the Ukrainian national anthem to open, after I said a few words, and really, this is what it means to be relevant as an industry: it means engaging with people’s emotions and thoughts in a particular moment. We played the anthem at a time before everyone else was doing it. I explained how Prokofiev (1891-1953), even though he is considered Russian, was born in Ukraine, specifically in the territory being bombed at the moment; as to Rachmaninoff, he left Russia because he never agreed with the regime change or its policies. Putting the music in context makes a huge difference in people’s minds…

Context, the magic word!

Yes! And we had a standing ovation after the anthem, and it wasn’t a standing ovation for only how well they played this music or how beautiful it was or is; it was a standing ovation for the fact we decided to open a concert with, let’s use this word, a “dangerous” program this way, by explaining what it means to us and why we are doing it.

I asked Axel Brüggemann about this recently and he agreed but added that such contextual information can sometimes disturb people’s closely-held perceptions of beauty in art…

So maybe he’s thinking of Dostoyevsky’s idea that beauty will save the world… and we know it will not!

It’s interesting you mention Dostoyevsky because there have been numerous discussions pondering if he should still he be held up as “the great Russian writer” considering his anti-semitism. Rather than knee-jerk reaction, my instinct as a teacher is to examine his work with  full contextual awareness, which might lead, as your book also suggests, to a rethinking of greatness, of Russian-ness, and how we use the word “genius” going forwards.

Yes, and what I tried to always state and intimate, when I can, is that Russians are very different, Russian music is a part of the Russian image, the government has used it to its own narrative, but we must never conflate all Russians, and especially Russian composers and musicians – and artists in general – into something unified. It would be anachronistic and inaccurate. In that op-ed you mentioned, Kevin Platt was trying to do this, and I don’t think it came off right, especially since he placed Gergiev and Netrebko in a strange context – but he did say Ukrainians who write in the Russian language, they certainly self-identify as Ukrainians, but they still use the Russian language, the same way as Gogol (1809-1852) did in the 19th century or Shevchenko (1814-1861) as well. They did it because Russian was the language of the empire, it was a colonizing language, and actually moving to Saint Petersburg was because of the opportunities that existed there, ones that didn’t exist for their art in Kyiv or in Ukraine in general.

We can never forget about the social element and infrastructures of how the arts are done when we examine any art form, especially music, because it is an extensive art form; you sometimes have to hire hundreds to perform your piece, and how can it be supported if the state or major donors don’t invest in the art form? We can’t forget about that reality. Some Ukrainian writers simply had opportunities in Russia, and when Russian had become a terribly universal language for all citizens of the former Soviet empire, they simply continued using this language – but that doesn’t mean they’re Russians; we can’t conflate them all into the same plot . For this reason we can’t cancel it all; we should perform it. People like Gergiev… no, that’s different. It’s clear to everyone on the planet I believe, that he specifically benefited from this government and specifically supported its war efforts; many others have not, they protested, it should also matter and it should count.

Having said that, I have experienced opinions from other folks, for example Ukrainian musicians, who think that while the war is ongoing, Russian and Ukrainian music shouldn’t be on the same platform or the same programme, and while I don’t quite agree with it, I do see the rationale for that, and I understand their position. Ultimately what they’re saying is music is their weapon as well, the same way it is and has been soft power, and a soft weapon for the Russian government, so Ukrainians are also saying, “We have this meaningful tool and we want to use it appropriately.” But there is also another element bothering me recently as a scholar of Russian music and culture: I agonize over the fact that right now is not an ideal time to advocate for Russian music, but it is impossible to reconcile the unimaginable atrocities that have been committed by Russian soldiers with the fact they were educated in school studying Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. They were part of the system and even if they didn’t internalize it, it was there, it existed. I know myself, I studied and taught there, and know how it’s done right now. So it’s hard to understand how people who had at least some cultural background and education in school, do what they’ve been doing…

Quite a few reports have explored the connection between military service and poverty, and President Zelensky has noted this also, which makes me think that for all culture they were shown in school, it doesn’t mean the same thing for them as it would for others in different areas. What is culture if you have nothing in the fridge and no job prospects outside the door? This makes me ponder our role(s) as artists / thinkers / writers / producers / programmers of culture, and of how to create or support a system that reaches past our bubble – which goes back to your points. The classical community needs to start thinking about all of this… 

… we do have to, yes, but unfortunately right now the domination of the Russian government there, in those places, is remaking the ways in which school kids, those in elementary schools, will be studying history and culture, and also unfortunately, that history and culture will now become even less based on facts and even more based on ideology. This is the reform they’re initiating right now as we speak. So who will grow up within that system, between ten to fifteen years from now, is scary to imagine. And that’s not talking only about rural areas but cities as well, because they all have the same agenda, to glorify what the army is doing right now.

The language for that glory creates and shapes a reality which is not, in fact, reality – but surely this is why we have to talk about culture, and characterize decisions in culture, very carefully ourselves, and make sure when we make these decisions public or engage in exchanges that such language is very precise and not reactionary…?

Yes, and we should do that. In Russia that sense has been killed; what exists is public television which is a very determined agenda. And going back to what you asked me about what we learned as a result of the pandemic and how Europe is different from North America: Russia is an entirely different planet. They’ve never heard of some of the concepts we are trying to implement, or they are totally against them. They are not even trying to understand or accept the realities of the current time. If you are talking about diversifying the art form, they’re never considered this. I’m worried this feeds into the overall line of the “exceptionality” of the Russian culture in general, and that idea applies to Russian musicians in particular. They don’t want to accept that there are other cultures, other important elements in our world that they need to consider.

That’s an important point, this notion of Russian exceptionalism, which has existed in parts of the Russian classical world for a long time I am not convinced such an attitude is good for art, or for people. Journalist Maxim Trudolyubov tackled the topic of Russian exceptionalism in the arts in a newsletter which attracted immense pushback from Russian artists, if also support from certain musicians, including composer Boris Filanovsky, who you quote in your book. 

You know it’s always interesting to consider how decolonization should happen, and quite an obvious way would be for those formerly colonized cultures to be considered independent of their colonizers. This is what I am observing right now: I think the deconstructing of Russian imperial identity is happening in such a way. Ukraine has always been positioned in comparison to Russia, and Ukrainian artists are often compared to Russian artists. I’ve heard here, on my job with the LPO even, on multiple occasions, that we don’t know Ukrainian music because “Oh, it’s not as good as Russian” – and this is silly. People don’t know Ukrainian music, period, because it was purposely colonized that way, it was undermined by the occupier, by the empire, by its ambitions for their counterparts who would willingly point it out to everybody, that what they do is better than what other people in the provinces do, and Russians just don’t want to hear this piece of history, we completely ignore this societal argument. So when decolonizing these cultures, say, Belarusian or Ukrainian, I think they should be able to stand on their own rather than being constantly compared with Russians – and right now the public discourse is such that it’s just not happening. Maybe a few more months have to pass. Right now our goal is to perform as much Ukrainian music as possible and convince everybody it does stand on its own, and that it does have this individuality which it was not granted in the past.

So it starts with those programming choices and the flexibility you mentioned and saying, “Yes, we are going to have this composer and that composer in our programme tonight, it isn’t announced, but here it is” – just that spontaneous?

It’s just that. We performed a piece for violin and orchestra, “Thornbush”, by Victoria Polevá (b. 1962, Ktiv) at the fundraiser for Ukraine in Glyndebourne in early April; it was not really announced but we spoke about it from the stage, and then we decided to commission a new piece from her for next season.

Our entire 2022-2023 season will be dedicated to music by composers who had to leave their own countries as refugees to displaced composers – so we’ll talk about issues of home, what is home, what is displacement, how the composers experience exile, homelessness, despair, when and why they had to drop everything and leave – and what does it mean to “belong:, in a much broader sense? Is the idea of “home” just an emotional environment they wanted to create for themselves? Or is it a certain geographic location? Is it a time and place? There are so many possible descriptors of what “home” is, and this is what we hope to explore through music next season. The idea of this season came up when I was just hired to become the Artistic Director, about a year ago, and we thought we were implementing it pretty well, we incorporated composers who had left Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany but also Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria, and you’ll hear music from all these composers although few know their names. We had to make some choices in favour of these composers instead of programming Beethoven, let’s say, who could sell us many more tickets – but we used this new season to represent our general mission. And unfortunately the idea became – I say “unfortunately” because I wish this war never happened – very relevant when the war was starting, so we commissioned Victoria Polevá, who was on the way from Kyiv to Poland to escape the bombs at the time we asked – and so she will write for us next season. This is how I understand the mission of our art form at this terrible moment: decolonizing the preconceptions about classical music.

Axel Brüggemann, writer, journalist, portrait

Axel Brüggemann: “Why Are We Doing It? This Is The Question”

Among the varied aspects to emerge from the reporting on the invasion of Ukraine has been the near-unquestioned move toward binary modes of thought in culture: like this; hate this; do not question that; definitely demand that. War kills nuance, as everyone knows, and in some cases this clarity is good, even needed, terribly overdue. In the past I have praised various classical figures who made clear public statements following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; such clarity of language, I wrote (and stand by), was and is required in such a horrific situation. Clarity is also the thing that is weaponized by a good many now, two months into the war, a quality meant for what is perceived as a good cause, but more often used as a cover for inconvenient truths. When organizations demand artists make public statements, context must be considered first and foremost (the context of the organization: who their donors and sponsors are; what their budgets are; who their audiences are and what type of programming they expect; for artists: history; family; old-current-future repertoire; work connections; personal connections; all the tenuous connections therein). More often than not, contextual detail is the last thing considered, and is usually ignored entirely within the cultural media landscape.

This is a pity, I think; transparency is a cornerstone of both good journalism and good human relating, but it is the quality most often left at the door for the sake of expediency, politics, personal gain. In its place, buzzwords – simplistic, reductive language that generates outrage and clicks – which do little to foster deeper understandings of the inner workings of culture and the sociological implications of such language choices within it. For weeks – months – I have wondered when or if this language of reduction might cease, and real investigations might begin; when the phrases “cancel culture” and “politically correct”, both of which are thrown far too lightly around now, might be dismantled with the kind of thoroughness which is so sorely needed within the cultural realm. I desperately wanted to believe some semblance of nuance could be found in the one spot that sets itself up as a paragon of thoughtfulness and (supposed) humanism: the arts. Is there even room for nuance in a time of war? Should there be? Some would argue firmly “no” and I am not in a position to argue with those individuals. I still think nuance matters; I would argue it matters more than ever.

As I have written in the past, shrinking budgets for education and public broadcasting, together with the new normal forced by pandemic, and old one of publishing, mean that populism dictates decisions as much in culture as in media. To reference what Richard Morrison wrote in The Times recently, there is now a move to label what is challenging as “elite” and to dismiss the perceivably “difficult” (it isn’t) as a waste of money, time, and energy. Much more favoured now (in programming as much as publishing) is that which will generate hype, attention, clicks – maximizing revenue (and ad tech machinery), justifying budgets – giving the public “what they want”, by paying the least for what will generate the most. Thus, there are no investigations, no contextualizations, no dismantlings – but lots of clickbait, lots of binary thinking, lots of reductive language, all of it in perpetuating as if in a hall of mirrors, an ever-starved ouroboros of outrage, ever-spinning out more “content” with nary a concern for the easy phrases used therein. But language, as recent times remind us, creates various forms of lived reality. Who uses it, how, and why, determines and shapes the reality for one, and for many; witness the ways in which Russian-language media sites have characterized the war and those involved, or, more colloquially, the ways in which the word “woke” has been used (and lately weaponized). Consider the many ways in which curse words have entered the popular lexicon over the past three decades, losing some of their shock value in certain cultures, gaining a new level of horror in others. This experience of language extends to the ways in which we discuss, understand, and frequently reduce cultural matters – people, productions, presentations, official announcements and decisions – within public consciousness. Thoughtful analyses and contextualized methods of presentation are needed, yet more often than not incendiary language, divorced entirely from such thoughtful modes, prevails. Are Russian artists really being “cancelled” in certain places? Or are figures and organizations in those places determined to obfuscate specific financial trails that could prove questionable if given public scrutiny? Is there a trail that needs following, one made up of Euros, roubles, franks, of casting couches and gold-leaf steaks and private boxes?

Axel Brüggemann thinks so. The German arts journalist recently followed, and reported on, those financial trails, specifically the timely ones involving the Wiener Konzerthaus and its Artistic Director Matthias Naske; conductor Teodor Currentzis and his respective organizations, MusicAeterna (of which Currentzis is founder and Artistic Director) and SWR Symphonieorchester Stuttgart (of which he is Chief Conductor); sanctioned Russian bank VTB; a planned benefit concert for Ukraine which did not ultimately take place. In reports published at classical music site crescendo in April, Brüggemann (who is crescendo‘s ex-editor-in-chief) outlines the ways in which the opera/classical world has been (is) a place overdue for examination, particularly within the financial realm. That the cultural realm should have such connections is hardly shocking, even if it does now bear deeper scrutiny in light of current circumstances and related sanctions. New York Magazine published a detailed feature on April 1st (“How Russia’s Oligarchs Laundered Their Reputations In The West“) which outlines the ways in which various Russian oligarchs, notably Len Blavatnik (who has been called “Britain’s wealthiest man”) have heavily supported non-profit organizations, including numerous cultural outlets. As writer Casey Michel writes, “On and on and on, U.S. and British nonprofits appeared all too happy to take part of Blavatnik’s wealth and to praise him for his largesse without bothering to highlight any of his links in Russia. (To be clear, there’s no allegation of any illegality on Blavatnik’s part.) Nor could these institutions claim they were unaware of Blavatnik’s ties in Russia — or the controversy these donations generated.” In his post from April 11th, Brüggemann himself notes the many financial ties between individuals, corporations, and various classical events and the questions raised therein, and he makes a detailed account of the planned benefit for Ukraine, its players, its questionable aspects, and outlines the complex web of politics, music, and money which has long fueled large swaths of the classical industry, quoting a statement sent to him from Vienna’s City Councillor for Culture, ​​Veronica Kaup-Hausler in which she states that she was not aware of Naske’s work with the MusicAeterna foundation. (On April 22nd, Austrian public broadcaster ORF reported that Naske has resigned his position on MusicAeterna’s Board of Trustees.) Brüggemann wrote on the 11th, “Es ist Zeit, die Korruption der Klassik aufzudecken, ihren aktiven und passiven politischen Missbrauch durch Künstlerinnen und Künstler. Auch Schweigen hat in dieser Zeit eine Bedeutung.” (“It is time to expose the corruption of classical music, its active and passive political abuse by artists. Silence also has a meaning in this time.”)

The call was answered with a fair amount of criticism in German media, with many accusing the busy media figure of a personal vendetta against Currentzis, of whipping up a mob mentality, and perhaps most interestingly, of naivete. Writer and cultural commentator Peter Jungblut posted an editorial at the website of Bavarian public broadcaster BR Klassik, with a direct title: “Warum “Saubere” Kunst Eine Utopie Ist” (“Why “Clean” Art Is a Utopia”, April 21). In the brief piece, he makes mention of disgraced American philanthropist Alberto Vilar and notes the infeasibility of the classical industry to divorce itself from its financial ties at this juncture, and the inherent hypocrisy of making such a demand. “Seien wir ehrlich: Wirklich “moralisches” Geld gibt es nicht, Wirtschaftsbetriebe sind keine Wohltätigkeitsorganisationen, und keine Produktion der Welt ist völlig unangreifbar.” (“Let’s face it: there is no such thing as truly “moral” money, business enterprises are not charities, and no production in the world is completely unassailable.”) Whether one thinks the term “false equivalency” is relevant here greatly depends on the context in which one approaches (and especially perceives) culture; it is worth pondering its role and continuance in our current age, especially given the continuance of covid and the related financial fallouts. If Me Too, BLM, and global pandemic were not the catalysts for change within the industry – is war? More specifically, are the things resulting from this war the agents of change, namely threatening the hand that feeds all else? How far should the Faustian bargain go? Where is the place where financial and moral meet, or can they?

“So we’ve reached our wits’ end, the point where you gentlemen lose your head. Why do you seek our company, if you can’t handle it? You want to fly, but your head goes dizzy. Well – did we force ourselves on you – or was it the other way round?”

(Mephisto, Urfaust: Goethe’s Faust in its Original Form after the Göchhausen Transcript, trans. John R. Williams 1999 and 2007)

How such timely cultural matters are discussed, why one wants for it so much now, and the specific language used around (and within) such exchanges determine how the classical world can (might) create, perceive, present, produce, and receive live culture moving forwards. That line in the sand, of what is acceptable and what is not, when, is (has been) different for a great many, and will continue to shift. The line is personal; the ways in which it is answered are not. Such responses, particularly coming from those working directly within the creative field, possess significant social, political, and cultural ramifications. When do ethics enter the equation, and why? The ways in which this question is answered gain significance through direct and actionable manifestation within the public sphere, and thus, expand public understanding, engagement, and receptions of culture.

Brüggemann himself is no stranger to engagement with the public; he has been a known figure in German-language media for decades, as a host, interviewer, writer, critic, moderator, publisher, publicist, and filmmaker. A freelancer since 2006, he has authored books on Wagner, Mozart, systems of notation, as well as ones on politics, parenting, and the German provinces, and made numerous films on a variety of topics, including various aspects of the Bayreuth Festival and Wagner, the history of Elgar’s Pomp And Circumstance, Beethoven’s Für Elise, and Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf; his work has been broadcast on ZDF, arte, and SKY. In a witty, brilliant column published at crescendo last October, he examined the roles of optics, brand, social media, ego, audience expectations, artistic perceptions, and the big one – money – through a classical lens, whilst referencing the work of Walter Benjamin and Stefan Ripplinger, and noting that “Klassik wird zum modernen Gladiatorenkampf oder – nach Ripplinger – zur Peepshow, in der das Publikum Geld bezahlt, um als Pilger und Jünger am Götzendienst der Interpreten teilhaben zu dürfen. Dieses Prinzip der Pornografisierung der Klassik fordert eine immer weitere Eskalation und Exhibition dieses musikalischen Kampfes.” (“Classical music becomes a modern gladiatorial combat or – according to Ripplinger – a peep show in which the audience pays money to be allowed to participate as pilgrims and disciples in the idolatry of the performers. This principle of the pornographisation of classical music demands an ever further escalation and exhibition of this musical struggle.”) The CD series Der Kleine Hörsaal (The Small Lecture Hall), demonstrates Brüggemann’s additional talent, one placed firmly within the world of teaching; created and produced for label Deutsche Grammophon in 2008 (it won a prestigious ECHO-Klassik award), the series is comprised of discussions between children and artists who share favorite musical works, memories, and moments. Along with didactic pursuits has come predictably glamorous assignments, including attending numerous fancy events and rubbing elbows with assorted members of the classical and cultural glitterati. If the old dictum “write what you know” holds true, Brüggemann is its effective classical ambassador for such an approach. Our conversation over the course of an hour was involved, lively, and passionate, an expression of love for classical music, the industry around it, and the ways in which it is written about within contemporary (largely digital) discourse.

Axel Brüggemann, writer, journalist, portraitReading your article I was struck as to why arts journalism isn’t conducting these kinds of investigations during a war in which so many cultural figures – and organizations, and programming – are affected. 

Such investigations are normal in sports, for example; we talk about doping, we talk about money in soccer or in American football, in the Olympic Games – we investigate all these strange money transfers, and various timely issues. There, in that world, it is normal; investigative journalism is normal in politics also, and in daily business. It’s just in culture we don’t have that, funnily enough. I think people still think arts and culture is just about beauty, but the problem is with what we see, and how we see it. In order to create beauty there is a system and behind this system it’s a market system, it’s a very old-fashioned system; we have issues of sexism, issues of racism, directors of theatres and orchestras who are guilty in both cases, and why is that so? This is the big question now with Russia. It’s a big issue about money. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Navalny video on Gergiev, it’s quite expansive – we aren’t talking about tens of millions but hundreds of millions. I have been doing examinations for a couple years now and I feel as much support as I’ve got, all these friendly words, there’s a lot of critics. They don’t want the beauty to be destroyed. Lots of people don’t appreciate that.

Is it that they think you are destroying beauty or that you are destroying their deeply-held perceptions of beauty?

It’s their ideas of music, and their aims for it. They go to concerts to get a space which takes them away from all everyday life; they have a busy job, annoying children, perhaps parents in hospital, there’s a war, there’s corona, all these awful things. Then you go for an opera or a concert for two hours and you just switch off the world. It’s like going to a funfair or theme park. The problem is that music was never done for that kind of escapism. Wagner, Verdi, Mozart – they never just did entertainment alone, they always wanted to thrill our brains, and they wanted us to switch on our imaginations, to see the world differently, to find different perspectives on problems and try to solve them – big experiences like love, hatred, war. Music, at least classical, isn’t strictly the entertainment business, and even operetta is not. We have fair trade products, we even have fair trade porn, but we do not have fair trade opera, and this is strange, and I think it’s important we have fair payment for singers, and to expose directors who put their hands on the butts of women; I think it’s important that we don’t have donors who use classical music to wash their money.

So if pandemic wasn’t the tipping point for change, war is, or has become that, whether we like it or not…

Absolutely yes.

… and investigations stemming from the old dictum to “follow the money” have led to criticism of you, including accusations that you are driven by personal vengeance. How aware are you that you are putting yourself out there for attack in conducting the kinds of investigations you do?

Oh yes, I know this, but… why are we doing it? This is the question. I am doing it out of passion for art. I have the same passion for art as the people who go to be entertained, but I am an opera lover, a concert lover – I don’t like Currentzis’ work, I have always said that, but I would fight for him to do whatever he wants, as long as he stays within the terms of humanity, you know? The first question I ask myself as an independent journalist is, why do I do it? And the second question is, how difficult it to be independent? At the Sunday paper I write for, I’ve been contributing there ten years, and we’ve been invited everywhere – we went to The Met, we went to Japan with the Staatskapelle Dresden – and I can tell you honestly, the whole system is corrupt. As a freelance journalist I said, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” I want to write books, do films – mainly I do that now, it’s what pays my living for the most part – music critic is my job, but not my money job. But one has to have a sense of independence. This is what I see with criticism of my work right now: very often, they might say, “he has a vendetta with this person” but… I don’t know what I should have revenge for… ? For whose aims? Mr. Naske now says, “oh he crashed the concert” and I think, “Wow, I am Superman! Maybe I’ll buy Twitter, or be the Musk of classical music!” I didn’t crash the concert, no – it was the Red Cross, Caritas, the ambassador of Ukraine. They are, all of them, people with a brain – they all saw the facts, and said, “Oh we better not do it!” I did present the facts to them but I did not make the actual choice.

So, to answer your question, we have a two-level system of music journalism. One is a bubble, and within that bubble, it works like this: the director calls the critic and says, “Don’t you want to come to the house for a coffee? You can meet maestro!” and “Oh I read your work, I love it! Listen, we have this great concert…” – this is the bubble. The second level of journalism goes more into politics, economy, a place with a completely different perspective on music and its role, and so now, with the Russia thing, the first bubble is exploding. We cannot simply live in this music bubble of incest, we have to open it, and this means you have to be a journalist first. And that is the change within reach now.

That brings up ideas of what journalism is or can be for in the 21st century, which leans at non-investigative things that will please ad tech and make people popular. I don’t write that kind of thing…

I’m like yourself there…

… bit of an old drum for me here, but digital publishing has had an influence on how people think of new and old music, and on how it’s presented, how it’s programmed, the language we use around it – that language has become largely reduced in the chase for clicks and shares. What’s your view?

Those sorts of things do get clicks, sure, but it gets them somewhere else, to those kinds of sites. One you mentioned earlier, somebody sent it to me, but that writer is not on my timeline, if you see my meaning – that’s not the page I’m on. I see my newsletter, sure I have 30,00 followers or whatever, there is a click value oddly enough, but I don’t change what I do, so… I think at least some people see the value of my work. The funny thing is, in corona we all thought classical music would be reset – we saw artists were not paid in America; whole orchestras were fired one day after another; we saw there seemed to be little to no value in musicians or the music. And now with the war, it is exactly the opposite. Suddenly, culture is in the peer group with propaganda, so it becomes important again. And this is so strange. Yesterday we were nothing, and today it’s very important! The truth is somewhere in-between.

And that truth sits differently in different places, because music was (still is) used in various ways as propaganda, particularly  where music was (is) perceived as an extension of government. Do you think organizations should demand statements from artists, when these artists were hired, promoted, and given carte blanche by these same organizations for so long?

I do think first of all, we shouldn’t force artists to make a statement. Culture is free, or should be, but… as soon as we smell that somebody is depending on somebody else and misusing art for propaganda, then we have to check: do we mean the same C Major? Is this the C Major of humanism or the C Major of propaganda? We have to check. We see those who are hooked to the system, and we can choose accordingly. In Germany we have 140 theatres which are highly subsidized by the German government, and in most of these theatres we have singers and orchestras, some made up of more than 100 musicians who are from France, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Poland – and they play together, every evening, and nobody asks what side are they standing on; they know for many years they stand with democracy, humanism, letting the other one live. That’s how it works, and that’s the force of music. We don’t need to ask a thing of them because we already know, but as soon as we smell there is propaganda, a lack of independence, we have to ask the question. This is what makes me angry about Currentzis; he is head of the SWR Orchestra. I and every other German pays 30 euros each month for public broadcasting – which is good, I’m paid through public funds for my films! – but I pay him, his orchestra, and in a democratic system, when a public radio station pays somebody like this, then that person must be able to say, “Mr. Putin’s war is bullshit.” And if he can’t do that, then he has to be paid by somebody else. It is so simple, everybody should understand it – shouldn’t they?

It’s the public funding system: when you’re funded that way you are beholden to the public, which also means you are beholden to public scrutiny. But scrutiny now is often equated with being negative, because it isn’t fluffy PR, which doesn’t generate sexy clicks…

I’ve had this discussion since 2014. With Gergiev, I asked, how can he be the head of the Munich Philharmonic? He supported the anti-gay laws in Russia; he supported the annexation of Crimea; he performed in Palmyra as part of the pro-Assad concert. I have written, since 2014, letters to the head of the Munich Philharmonic, saying, “Do you think your conductor’s views are acceptable?” And it’s always been the same response: “This is the private opinion of Mr. Gergiev; we don’t comment on that.” I mean… no! It doesn’t work! We are doing the same now with Currentzis, and here come the accusations: “Ah, but you just don’t like him!” and “He’s a great musician and you don’t want him to be successful!” and “You don’t like him because he’s an eccentric genius!” and… really, I don’t give a damn. I love complicated people, but that isn’t the issue.

You use the word, “genius” – I have made a conscious decision to stop using it. A lot of terrible behaviour has flourished because of it. 

… and that’s what many said to me: “If we would judge these music figures like you do, we wouldn’t have all those great symphonies conducted by (Wilhelm) Furtwängler!” I said, “Well, that’s why we discuss him up to today, he hasn’t gotten out of that question yet!” – and yes, we have to discuss it, things like this are so important!

Scrutiny doesn’t invalidate the work or recordings to you?

No!

So you believe such debates help to contextualize those recordings?

Exactly.

How do you think we ought to encourage audiences who might not know or care about such debates, particularly when they are already nervous about returning to the opera house and concert hall? 

I think it happens all by itself already. The conductor Franz Welser-Möst – I wrote his autobiography with him – once said to me, “Look, the successful performances at Salzburg were Elektra, Salome, Rosenkavalier – it was all not really the big Netrebko/Tosca type stuff, but the content operas” – yes, and we got new singers like Asmik Grigorian as well. I think with corona we mustn’t underestimate the appeal of such things, and how those things will change classical music. With my own students, I mean, they are 19-20-22 years old, they are completely aware I am an old white man, and whatever I say about sex, race, politics, is through that filter – I grew up with other rules. But they are right, the young people. We can learn from them. I have two daughters, and I know if they go to classical things, they will have completely different expectations than the people who are in there now, which is our parents. They just want something else. My mum is not interested in my newsletter. She’s like, “Why can’t you just do something nice!”

My mother used to say the same: “Why are you so critical all the time? Why can’t you just go and enjoy the music?!”

Yes, that’s the generation! But what I want to say is, I am very optimistic. I think what happens now, it’s what I said to Welser-Möst also, is, lean back; the train is on the track, just let it go. We don’t have to do anything. I see the criticism of me and I don’t answer it. There was a critic in the 1920s, Alfred Kerr, who wrote a saying that translates essentially as, “what hurts is true ” – so, everything that cuts has a bit of truth. I’m invited to a European orchestra day, and I know the issue now is that the orchestras don’t know how to attract people – the audience is not there anymore – but the thinking of this orchestra who’s inviting me is, “We see the newsletter is successful, tell us what can we do?” My response is: be faithful. If I have a trademark in Germany, it is that everybody knows I’m not corrupt – you can’t buy me. I made enemies from friends, and I’ve made friends from enemies; if I know a conductor who behaves badly, I’ll state it; if I know someone I dislike who does something good, I’ll write. That’s what readers expect from us. And classical as an institution has to be faithful to what it is also; it mustn’t follow any trends. We’re coming into a time when classical will have a division in terms of how it’s presented, between very popular events – where you go to an open-air concert, have a glass of wine, it’s sunny and nice; it doesn’t matter who plays or what is on the programme, it’s just nice, I like them too! – and what I call content-first concerts, where somebody has an idea, and you can feel irritated, angry, happy, touched, moved, inspired, confused, you are shaking, you are upset; this form of presentation will just be … ideas, meaning, depth, craft. These two forms will, I am 100% sure, make up the future of the classical world. And all the mediocre music and presentations, like “Oh let’s put on Rigoletto because he’s in it and she’s in it” – why? Why should people go to see that?

It’s the star system many houses operate on – the wealthy will pay for the people they want to see perform live…

The Salzburg Festival has this problem…

… which then is playing to another bubble.

Yes, and this bubble has learned in corona, that sure, it could be cool if you pay 500 dollars for a ticket, that’s 1000 dollars for two, but hey, we can go for a super-fancy dinner, with the chefs cooking our fancy steak at the table in front of us and putting gold leaf on it at the end…

That amount of money I could see a hell of a lot of live music and theatre in Berlin…

Yes, but the super-rich I’m talking about aren’t interested in doing that kind of thing – opera for the rich, we see it in Salzburg, it’s a status symbol, or it was … the rich now have different hobbies as well, they have a yacht and go sailing or have tons of galleries; opera isn’t the hot spot now, it’s not the place now to be seen. Not anymore.

Yet so many marketing departments are desperately trying to push the ‘elite’ image and tie it to influencer culture…

… yes, because what is the thing you are not able to buy? It has always been emotions. You can go to a prostitute and they will do precisely what you ask her to do, or him to do, and perhaps that pleases you, what is done, but it doesn’t touch you, it’s just gymnastics. But culture can deeply emotionalize us, and if we have heard the Kindertotenlieder, we can’t have champagne afterwards and laugh away, or we don’t want to, at all. We want to go home and sip water and think, and fall asleep and wake up and go, wow, what was that experience? I think that’s much better. But as journalists and artists, we have to think about why we do these things – like, why do I write? Do I write a newsletter every Monday because I have to write a newsletter every Monday? Or do I do it because I have the chance to say something to lots of people every Monday? I don’t do it because I have to, but because I have the chance to, but I have to find something which I really want to say every Monday. If I don’t find something, I don’t write.

That’s precisely how I work – the inspiration has to be there. I have to sit and read and think and research, and then think again, for long periods of time.

Exactly. It has a lot of value, that style. Like us talking now, too. I’ve been working on this article for four weeks now, and I’ve also been doing research for two years now for a podcast project set to come out in November. That’s why we can be successful, because we take the time, we don’t have to react to everything, or if we see something we immediately say something. This Twitter-Facebook thing is fun but it belongs there, in that world; for an article you have to have an idea. Journalism can be smart, can be serious, and can be entertaining – this is what is difficult, combining them all. So I find it important to have conversations like this. There’s this shitstorm coming at me about my current investigations, and I rang some colleagues about it. I said, “I know we’re supposed to be competitors but can we please stop that” – because there’s enough topics now. But it’s because of these current investigations that I’m supposedly the bad guy, “Axel has a beef with Currentzis” – I said to these colleagues, “Can you please investigate this foundation also? Can you look it up? If I do everything, it’s not right.” I rang five or six different colleagues from different papers and said I’d share my information and my sources with them; I am not the story here. There’s enough for all of us. We have to have this sort of lobby as well, to support those who have ideas about a better way of journalism and of talking about classical music. I mean, realistically, we reach 5% of people at most in discussing this.

But that’s the problem: there aren’t enough people talking about this, which is largely owing to the realities of contemporary publishing. What do you think might change?

There are more and more of us doing this kind of work, and there will be even more, because the younger ones are coming. For them it is normal to ask these kinds of questions. In my 50-year-old wisdom (laughs)… perhaps I am able to see what is coming. Our role can be to open the doors. I don’t need this world anymore, really – I have my films, and my other work – but I can open the doors and prepare the path for younger ones to come. They are not interested in this old classical bullshit – why should they be? It’s boring.

Not necessarily, but the way it’s been presented to them is boring.

That’s true.

It’s the divide between the way something is presented, and the thing itself. But what do you think are the next steps in our world, then?

I think it’s all these small steps, one goes ahead, the other one follows, the other one moves ahead – change is a process, and again, this is why I appreciate conversations like this. We must be conscious of what we are doing, and then we can go and make these changes, and know we are not alone. We know why we are doing it, and that matters.

 

Met Opera, Etienne Dupuis, Don Carlos, Rodrigue, baritone, opera, Metropolitan Opera, New York, stage, culture, performance, Verdi

Etienne Dupuis: “Opera Can Affect Your Everyday Life”

In 2003, at the very the beginning of the Second Iraq War, my mother and I had gone out for a meal and when we came home, she poured us glasses of whiskey, and put on an old recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo. (The 1983 Metropolitan Opera production featuring Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni, to be precise.) I don’t remember what was said in turning it on, but I remember the look on her face after the First Act. “We’re going to wake up tomorrow and a bunch of people we don’t know are going to be dead,” she said, sighing softly. I’d been feeling guilty all night, and kept wiping tears away; it was hard to concentrate on anything. She knew I was upset and didn’t know what to do. “Listen to the music,” she said, patting my hand, “there is still good in the world, even if it’s hard to find. Just listen.” With that, she poured us more whiskey, and held my hand. I kept crying, but I took her advice.

The war in Ukraine broke out a day after I spoke with baritone Etienne Dupuis. I seriously questioned if this might be my penultimate artist interview, my conclusion to writing about music and culture. It was difficult to feel my work had any value or merit. Last week I wrote something to clarify my thoughts and perhaps offer a smidge of insight into an industry in tumult, but my goodness, never did my efforts feel more absurd or futile. Away from the noise of TV and the glare of electronic screens, there was only snow falling quietly out the window, an eerie silence, the yellow glare of a streetlight, empty, yawning tree branches. Memory, despite its recent (and horrifying) revisionism, becomes a source of contemplation, and perhaps gentle guidance. I thought of that moment with my mother, and I switched on Don Carlo once more. Music and words, together, are beautiful, powerful, potent, as opera reminds us. These feelings can sometimes be heightened (deepened, broadened) through translation, a fact which was highlighted with startling clarity earlier this week during an online poetry event featuring Ukrainian poets and their translators. American supporters included LA Review Of Books Editor and writer/translator Boris Dralyuk and writer/activist/Georgetown Professor Carolyn Forché, both of whom gave very affecting readings alongside Ukrainian artists. (I cried again, sans the whiskey.) The event was a needed reminder of art’s visceral power, of the significance of crossing borders in language, culture, experience, and understanding, to move past the images on DW and CNN and the angry messages thrown across social media platforms like ping-pong balls, to sink one’s self into sound, life, experience, a feeling of community and essential goodness, little things that feel so far. The reading – its participants, their words, their voices, their faces, their eyes – was needed, beautiful; the collective energy of its participants (their community, that thing I have so been missing, for so long) helped to restore my faith, however delicately, in my own abilities to articulate and offer something, however small. I don’t know if music makes a difference; context matters so much, more than ever, alongside self-awareness. Am I doing this for me, or for others? I push against the idea of music as a magically “unifying” power, unless (this is a big “unless”) the word we all need to understand – empathy – is consciously applied. Empathy does not erase linguistic, regional, cultural, and socio-religious borders, but it does require the exercise of individual imagination, to imagine one’s self as another; in that act is triggered the human capacity for understanding. Translation is thus a living symbol of empathy and imagination combined, in real, actionable form – and that has tremendous implications for opera.

On February 28, 2022, The Metropolitan Opera  opened its first French-language presentation of Don Carlo (called Don Carlos). Premiered in Paris in 1867, composer Giuseppe Verdi continued to work on the score for another two decades, and the Italian-language version has become standard across many houses. Based on the historical tragedy by German writer Friedrich Schiller and revolving around intrigues in the Spanish court of Philip II, the work is a sprawling piece of socio-political examination of the nature of power, love, family, aging, and the levers controlling them all, within intimate and epic spaces. The work’s innate timeliness was noted by Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times, who wrote in his review (1 March 2022) that it is “an opera that opens with the characters longing for an end to fierce hostilities between two neighboring nations, their civilians suffering the privations caused by the territorial delusions of a tiny few at the top.” The Met’s production, by David McVicar and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, features tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, Dupuis as his faithful friend Rodrigue (Rodrigo in the more standard Italian version), soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth de Valois, bass baritone Eric Owens as King Philippe II, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as Eboli, bass baritone John Relyea as the Grand Inquisitor, and bass Matthew Rose as a mysterious (and possibly rather significant) Monk. At the works’ opening, the cast, together with the orchestra, performed the Ukrainian national anthem, with young Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, making his company debut in a smaller role, placing hand on heart as he sang. One doesn’t only dispassionately observe the emotion here; one feels it, and that is the point – of the anthem as much as the opera. The anthem’s inclusion brought an immediacy to not only the work (or Verdi’s oeuvre more broadly), but a reminder of how the world outside the auditorium affects and shapes the reception of the one being presented inside of it. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” ? Not always. Perhaps it’s more a reminder of the need to consciously exercise empathy? One can hope.

The moment is perhaps a manifestation of the opera’s plea for recognizing the need for bridges across political, emotional, spiritual, and generational divides. There is an important religious aspect to this opera, one innately tied to questions of cultural and socio-political identities, and it is an aspect threaded into every note, including the opera’s famous aria “Dio che nell’alma infondere” (“Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” in French), which sounds heroic, but is brimming with pain; Verdi shows us the tender nature of human beings often, and well, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than here. The aria is not only a declaration of undying friendship but of a statement of intention (“Insiem vivremo, e moriremo insieme!” / “Together we shall live, and together we shall die!”). It reminds the listener of the real, human need for authentic connection in the face of the seemingly-impossible, and thus becomes a kind of declaration of spiritual and political integration. We see the divine, it implies, but only through the conscious, and conscientious, exercise of empathy with one another – a timely message indeed, and one that becomes more clear through French translation, as Woolfe noted in his review. The aria, he writes, “feels far more intimate, a cocooned moment on which the audience spies.” Translation matters, and changes (as Dupuis said to me) one’s understanding; things you thought you knew well obtain far more nuance, even (or especially) if that translation happens to be in one’s mother tongue.

Dupuis, a native of Quebec, is a regular at numerous international houses, including Wiener Staatsoper, Opéra national de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, as well as The Met. The next few months see the busy baritone reprise a favorite role, as Eugene Onegin, with the Dallas Opera, as well as sing the lead in Don Giovanni with San Francisco Opera. Over the past decade, Dupuis has worked with a range of international conductors, including Phillippe Jordan, Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Oksana Lyniv, Bertrand de Billy, Ivan Repušić, Carlo Rizzi, Paolo Carignani, Cornelius Meister, Robin Ticciati, Alain Altinoglu, and, notably, two maestros who died of COVID19: Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. It was in working with the latter maestro at Deutsche Oper in May 2015 that Dupuis met his now-wife, soprano Nicole Car, and the two have shared the stage in the same roles whence they met (as Eugene Onegin and Tatyana, respectively, from Tchaikovsky’s titular opera).  Dupuis’s 2015 album, Love Blows As The Wind Blows, recorded with Quatuor Claudel-Canimex (Atma Classique), is a collection of songs from the early and mid-20th century, and demonstrates Dupuis’s vocal gifts in his delicate approach to shading and coloration, shown affectingly in composer Rejean Coallier’s song cycle based on the poetry of Sylvain Garneau.

Full of enthusiasm, refreshingly free of artiste-style pretension, and quick in offering insights and stories, Dupuis was (is) a joy to converse with; the baritone’s earthy appeal was in evidence from the start of our exchange, as he shared the reason behind his strange Zoom name (“‘Big Jerk’ is my wife’s pet name for me”). Over the course of an hour he shared his thoughts on a wide array of issues, including the influence of the pandemic on his career, the realities of opera-music coupledom, what it’s like to sing in his native language, the challenges of social media, and the need to cross borders in order to understand characters (and music, and people) in deeper, broader ways. Don Carlos will be part of The Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD series, with a broadcast on March 26th.

 Congratulations on Don Carlos

It’s beyond my greatest expectations, really….

… especially this version! When you were first approached to do it, what was your reaction?

It was a surprise! For some reason, even though my first language is French, I do get offers for Italian rep all the time. I think I have an Italianate way of singing – I’ve never given it much thought. When Paris did Don Carlo exactly the way The Met is doing it – the five-act French version, then the five-act Italian version a year later with the same staging – even though I’m French, not France-French but Quebec-French, they cast me in the Italian version. So when The Met called and said, “We want you for the French version” it was very exciting and surprising, I was able to sing it in the original, which is my original language as well.

Being in your native tongue has you changed how you approach the material, or…? Or changed your approach to Verdi overall?

There are things I think I’m better at and things I think I’m worse at! It’s important to know that David (McVicar) and Yannick (Nezet-Seguin) have together decided on a French version that has a lot of the later Italian version’s music in it – so, for example, they’re using a French version most of the time, but the duet between me and the King, or the quartet in Act 4, is the revised Italian version, in French. They worked on a version which they felt made the music and the drama the clearest possible – that’s important to establish. The creation from 1867 isn’t what people will get. But my approach in terms of the language, it’s not the vowels or language, so much as the style. So it’s really cool, I’ve always liked hybrids, even in people who come from different backgrounds, like if one person is born in one place but raised in another, for instance – I think it’s interesting. And I love the writing of Italian composers, those long, beautiful legato lines – and in this opera, with the French text, it’s especially interesting because the text fits differently than you would expect. It doesn’t necessarily fall in the obvious places, especially when it comes to stresses. Italian sings differently than when you speak it, so the music of the language is different – and that translates live. I’ve done Don Carlo five times already my last one was in December so it’s very fresh in my head

Does that give you a new awareness of Verdi’s writing, then? You said in a past interview that his is music you can “can really live in” but this seems as if it’s making you work to build that nest for living…

Oh for sure. In general – and this is very stereotypical – the Italian, and I put it in brackets, “Italian” really, it’s emotional first… like, we’re going to go to the core! It’s so big with the emotion, and the French goes more into, I want to say a sort of intelligence but I don’t mean it against the Italian! It’s that in French, the characters are in their heads, they rationalise the emotion, so they’ll say “I love you” differently, spin it in a different way. The word we use is “refinement” – there is a refinement in Italian too. I want to be clear on this: the French and Italian influence each other, but I do love singing it in French because all the nuances I’ve seen in the score, in French they make sense to me. “Why is there pianissimo in that note?”, for instance – and in French, it works, those choices really work. It changes the way the line is brought up, like, “oh, that’s why it’s that way!”

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Jamie Barton as Princess Eboli and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So is that clarifying for the understanding of your character, then?

Yes – the short answer is yes; the long answer is, it has to do a lot more with the background in the sense that now I realise what they’re really saying. Of course it is the fact I speak the language, so now I mean, I’ve always known the phrase he was saying, but in French the translation is almost exact. There are these little differences, and they give me more insight into what’s going on.

I was talking with Jamie Barton about this yesterday – we all love each other in this cast, I’d sing with them all, any day of my life, for the rest of my life – and she and I were talking about this one particular scene. It’s a very strange scene before my first aria, the French court type of music, it’s not that long. My character just gave a note to the Queen in hiding, and Eboli saw I did something, and she has all these suspicions, so then she starts talking to me about the court of France and it’s the weirdest thing; I’ve always had trouble with that scene when I did it in Italian. Why is she so intent on asking me about the court of France? I don’t see Eboli caring that much, but the answer was given to me partly by McVicar, partly by Yannick, and partly through the French version. At this very moment (Rodrigue) has been supposedly sent to France, but he’s been in Flanders the whole thing trying to defend the part of the empire he loves – it’s not just he loves it, but he wants to defend human life, and so Eboli is not in a position to say to him, “I want to know what the Queen is up to” – so she attacks me, but it’s in the form of, “How’s France?” Even though she knows I’ve not been there at all, she’s that clever. It’s why she’s so relentless. “What do women wear in France now? What is the latest rumour?” My answer is, “No one wears anything as well as you.” I’m deflecting every question. This very short two-minute scene that everyone wants to cut – it’s very rich in subtleties! And because of the French language now, I think it’s become much clearer in my mind. In the French language sarcasm is very strong, we use it all the time, so.

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Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So it’s political-cultural context, for him and for us…

Yes, exactly. Eboli is very clever, fiercely clever, she’s a force to be reckoned with, so it establishes the two characters, her and Rodrigue. They are just behind the main characters: Don Carlo and Élisabeth and the King. Eboli and Rodrigue are both in the shadows, but quickly, just in this little scene, you understand they are pulling the strings in many instances. I become the best confidant of the king and I am already the confidant of Don Carlo; Eboli is sleeping with the King ,and she is pulling the levers with Élisabeth.

So you see the mechanics of power in that scene very briefly…

In a short way, yes. It’s one of my favourite moments of the opera now. We can blame the fact that, in the past, I should’ve coached with someone who knew the opera really, really, really well, and said, “Listen this is what’s going on” – I mean, it has been said to me, but it wasn’t that clear. I knew Eboli was relentless about the court, but what is really happening? It’s really about the power struggle of these two. That dynamic is one you find the trio with Don Carlo later on – the same thing happens. It’s real people fighting for what they believe is right.

There are some who, especially after this pandemic, have felt that the return of art is a wonderful sort of escape, but to me this particular opera isn’t escapist, it’s very much of the now.

There is an inclination to think of it like this: opera can affect your everyday life – and almost any opera can. And Don Carlo definitely should be something people see. They might think, “Wow, there’s so much in today’s politics we can with this.” There are always people pulling the strings when it comes to politics. When you see someone in power do something completely crazy, this opera reminds you that there are people in the back who might have pushed those rulers to that, it’s not always, exclusively just them waking up and going, “Hey, let’s do something awful today!”

It’s interesting how the pandemic experience has changed opera artists’ approaches to familiar material, like you with Rodrigo/Rodrigue, Don Giovanni, and Onegin… is it different?

Completely, and it’s not just the roles either, but the whole career. When you jump into it – and it’s the right image, you do jump, you don’t know where it takes you – at first you have a few gigs, smaller roles and smaller houses. You ride that train for a while and if you’re lucky, like in my case, you get heard and seen by people who push you into bigger roles and houses, so that train keeps taking you this place and that, and you never stop, it becomes unrelenting: when do you have time to stop for a minute and say, “Do I still like doing this?” We have people ask us things like, what’s your dream role? And I don’t know the answer. I kind of have an idea, and I have dreams, but was it a dream to sign at The Met? No. Was it a dream to sing in a produiton like this? Yes, a million times, yes. So it’s not just “singing at The Met”, but it’s a case of asking, in what conditions do I want to sing there? To totally stop during the pandemic and think, “Do I still like doing this? How do I want to do it now?” was, for me, very important. One of the first things that happened as things went back was that I had to jump in at Vienna for Barbiere – it was a jump-in but I had three weeks of rehearsals, and it was amazing. I’d done Figaro many times and it was the most relaxed I’ve ever done it.

Really!

Yes! It was complicated and high singing, sure, but, I’m going to be serious here: I took three days after each performance to recuperate because of how much I moved around and the energy I gave. I’m older – I tried to do it like when I was 28, but I had to recuperate as the 42-year-old man that I am. People said, “but you look so young on stage!” I said, “Oh my god, I feel so tired!” Still, I was really, genuinely relaxed about it all – the role just came out of me – I just let it go! I don’t feel like my career hangs on to it, or to any other role. I don’t feel it’ll stop me from doing things; one role doesn’t stop me from the other.

You were supposed to be in Pique Dame in Paris last year.

It is an amazing opera, it’s not about the baritone at all, so it’s not like Onegin, but what I know of Lisa and Herman’s music, well, I want to see and hear that, it’s amazing! But at the same time, I am interested in the baritone version of Werther – I can say honestly, it was one of the roles I’d wanted to do – it’s not a lover, Charlotte and Werther don’t have that beautiful love story…

… neither do Onegin and Tatyana…

Exactly! It is profound, the way it’s written.

Returning to your remark about teams, you worked with two conductors who passed away from COVID, Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. What do you remember of working with them, and how did those experiences affect working with various conductors now?

With Davin, we did two productions together; he was a different type of man. I never got with his way of making music so much but there is something you feel when people you know passed away -– and he was still one of the good guys, he was still fighting for art and beauty, even if we had different ways of doing it, it doesn’t matter. With Vedernikov, I met my wife singing under him in Berlin –he was the conductor of Onegin, and she was Tatyana. At that time I was doing my first Rodrigo, and my first Onegin. I was learning those two roles together, and the first premiere of Don Carlo fell on the same day as the first day of rehearsals for Onegin; I had both roles together in my brain, and it follows me to this day. In fact, my next gig is in Dallas, singing Onegin, a week after the last performance here, so the roles are forever linked for me.

Nicole and I met in this production of Onegin with Vedernikov, and I remember looking at the cast list and seeing his name, and thinking, oh no! I was nervous, because he had been the conductor for over ten years at the Bolshoi, so Onegin and Russian music overall poured out of him. It was my first time singing in Russian, and I thought, “Oh my God, what will he say about my Russian!” But he was the nicest, most relaxed man I ever met. He had this face conducting… it wasn’t grim, he had these really big glasses going down his nose, and he was conducting, head down, very serious and thinking, and sometimes he’d give you a comment, like, “We should go fast here.” I kept worrying that, “Oh no, he’s going to say my pronunciation is terrible” but no, he was giving me the freedom, saying things like, “make sure you are with me.” He taught me so much by leaving out some things. This one day, we had this Russian coach, she was really precise – I love that, it allows me to get as close to the translation as I can – and there’s a moment, I forget the line, but she was trying to get me out of the swallowing-type sounds that sometimes come with the language, and one word she was trying to get to me be very clear on, and Vedernikov turns around and goes, “That’s all fine but but he also has to be able to sing it.”

It’s true in any language. I speak French, and this whole (current) cast of people speaks French (Sonya Yoncheva’s second language in French; she lives in Geneva) and even though there are moments where I want to turn around and go, “Be careful, it doesn’t sound clear enough” – I think, let it go, because I think, and this is from Vedernikov, you have to be able to sing it. It’s an opera. And now that he’s passed away I really remember that, more and more. I think it’s the power of death, to highlight any little bits of knowledge or experience you gain from working with and knowing these people – you cherish them and what they brought.

How much will you be thinking of that in Dallas?

Every time, of course. Especially since I’m doing it with Nicole as Tatyana!

You guys are an opera couple, but do you ever find you want to talk about non-music things?

We almost never talk about opera. We’re not together now but even if we were, we have a little boy, so we talk about that. We have projects, we’re thinking where we’ll go live next and where Noah will go to school, and depending on how many singing opportunities come our way from different opera houses – that influences where we want to be. Should we be closer to those gigs, or… ? If she sings two or three years in a specific house, then maybe we should be as close as possible there? We talk about our families, our friends – humans are what matter the most to Nicole and I. Of course we talk about random gossip too, and what people post on social media. Sometimes we chat with each other about work since we are opera-oriented but we barely sing at home, mostly because Noah hates it.

You mentioned social media – some singers I’ve spoken with have definite opinions about that. It feels like an accessory that has to be used with a lot of wisdom.

For sure, but when it comes to opera singers, I have yet to see, maybe there’s an exception, but I’ve yet to see people really going into the controversial areas, except for a few. There are ones out there who like to impart and share their own experiences and knowledge of the world of opera, and they do it in a way in which people are interested, but… I’m torn on it, because it’s not the same for anybody. This is one of those businesses where you are your own product, everything that happens to you is so unique; I can tell you things about how I feel about the operatic world and it would be different to someone else’s. So I don’t mind if they share it, every point of view is important, but there’s definitely no absolute truth to what any of them are saying. To come back to your point about social media as a tool, we’ve noticed more and more it will make someone more popular in some senses – singers have been struggling for a long time with popularity. Opera used to be mainstream, and it’s been replaced by cinema and models, like spotting an actor vs an opera singer on the street is very different – people freak out over the actor, of course! So it’s kind of like the operatic world is trying to gain back some of that popularity it once had. I mean, we’re great guests (on programs), we have good stories, we’re mostly extroverted and loud…

But most of the postings don’t convert into ticket sales…

No, but they convert into visibility. So 50,000 people may not buy tickets, but they can be anywhere in the world…

… they don’t care seeing you live or hearing your work; they just want to see you in a bikini.

Ha, yes!

Your remark about visibility reminds me of outlets who say “we don’t pay writers but we pay in exposure”…

Yes, and that’s bullshit. In the world of commerce, there’s an attitude from companies of, “We’ll pay for an ad on your page” and it can work, but as a product, we don’t behave the same way a pair of jeans does; I can’t ship myself to someone, and if I don’t fit I can’t be returned. It’s a completely different way of marketing. You can’t market people in the arts the same, and you shouldn’t.

You have had to develop relationships with various houses and have worked for years with your team to develop those relationships, but things can change too.

That’s right, and I’ve already seen part of the decline, not for me, but yes. As human beings we will go really far into something until it repeats, and crashes, and as it crashes, we do the opposite, or try something else, and we do that over and over and over again. Big companies reinvent themselves enough they can find longevity; it isn’t the same for artists. If you think of how a company like Facebook began, there was a time not that long ago, it was like, “Oh my God, my mother is on Facebook!” Now it’s like, “Oh yes, there’s my mom.” That’s become a normal thing; that’s the evolution. And along with that you start to notice other things – for instance, I posted a photo of my hairdo on Don Carlo and I got a few flirtatious comments from men, people I don’t know, and I thought, “Wow, that was just one picture!” It made me really think about what women who post certain shots must face.

Yes, and most women, me included, will use filters – it’s a purposefully curated version of self for a chosen public, not real but highly self-directed.

It’s worth remembering: a picture is not a person, and no one seems to make the distinction anymore. That extends to the theatre: you see someone onstage, and you go and meet them backstage, and you can see clearly that they’re so different — a different height, a different shape, everything, even their aura is totally different from the image you were presented with. And sometimes it’s a shock. Sure, through photoshop and airbrushing, a photo can be good, but even onstage, a person is still not the same person, or in a TV show or whatever. It’s a picture; it’s not you.

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Matthew Polenzani as Don Carlos and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Top photo: Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

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.)

Catherine Foster: “Having Something Taken Away Spurs You Into Another Place”

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Photo: Uwe Arens

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.

Foster is known for dramatic repertoire, and has built a career performing the music of Strauss, Puccini, Verdi, and most especially Wagner. She recently made debuts as Leonora di Vargas in Verdi’s La Forza del destino (at Oper Köln) and Eglantine in Weber’s Euryanthe with conductor Marek Janowski, as well as Die Färberin (the Dyer’s Wife) in Die Frau ohne Schatten at Nationaltheater Mannheim in 2019-2020. Cultural review site Die Neue Marker proclaimed in its review (translated from its original German) that throughout the sumptuous Strauss work, Foster “increased her modulation-rich soprano, always present in all registers, to stratospheric heights, combining soft colouration with persistently powerful yet always round vocal attacks. Her phenomenal ability to span large dramatic arches with unbroken intensity, without any technical losses in the constant focus of the harmony of her expressive soprano timbre, is spectacular.”

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.

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As Brünnhilde at Washington National Opera. Photo © Scott Suchman

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 TurandotTristan 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.

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

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.

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As Elektra in Wiesbaden, 2016. Photo © Sven-Helge Czichy

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…  

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With Johan Reuter as Wotan in Die Walküre. Photo © Szilvia Csibi, Müpa Budapest

In suspended development.

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.

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Turandot, Oper Köln. Photo © Bernd Uhlig

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. 

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

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.

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Photo © Uwe_Arens

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.

Matthew Jocelyn: Interpretation Over Illustration

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the 2019 Oper Köln production of Hamlet. Photo: Paul Leclaire

Many people have mixed memories about studying Shakespeare. One of my strongest is coming to the famous tale of the gloomy Dane in high school, and an English teacher expressing shock at being able to spout lengthy scenes from memory. That awe quickly morphed into annoyance when my impatience with what I perceived to be a reductive approach made itself known in a typically boisterous teenaged way. “Would you like to explain this passage then?” my teacher asked testily. I took her up on that offer. Passion for the play would subsequently manifest in numerous essays, reviews, poems, and theatre experiences, including playing the lead myself in an abridged university production that seemed key to my calling as a theatre artist at the time.

Owing to an equal love of opera, it has always been a source of disappointment that I’d never heard a version that satisfied, or, to my mind (and heart), fully expressed Hamlet‘s beautiful, potent mystery – not until, that is, I experienced the work of composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. Their Hamlet, with its nods to works like Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Elektra, is as much about the journey of the artist as it is about a gloomy Prince, and captures human connection (familial, romantic, inner) with every ounce of fraught complexity; the awful, awesome beauty of Hamlet‘s humanistic psychology pairing is very much a quiet, palpable force that creates momentum every ounce as much as it inspires contemplation. The theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone. I was (and remain) as much in awe of Jocelyn’s libretto as of Dean’s score; it’s a rare if precious experience to find both exerting such equal power, in such memorable and affecting ways.

Matthew Jocelyn theatre Hamlet director writer artist

Photo: Tony Hauser

Canada-born Jocelyn is a well-known theatre figure in Europe. He’s directed numerous works, including the French-language premieres of Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel (Théâtre de l’Ecrou, Fribourg), The Love of the Nightingale and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (both Atelier du Rhin, Colmar), The Liar by Corneille (Stratford Festival), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Atelier du Rhin) Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter by Tankred Dorst from his own translation, and Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (both Canadian Stage Company), as well as opera productions including Martinù’s Larmes de couteau and Alexandre Bis, Piccinni’s La Cecchina ossia la buona figliola, Boesmans’s Reigen,  Gluck’s La Clemenza di Tito, Chabrier’s l’Étoile (all for Opéra National du Rhin), Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten  (for Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Bruxelles), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (for Oper Frankfurt). He wrote the libretto for La bal by composer Oscar Strasnoy, based on a story by Russian writer Irène Némirovsky; the opera was part of Die Trilogie der Frauen for Staatsoper Hamburg in 2010, which he directed and which also featured Schönberg’s Erwartung and Rihm’s Das Gehege. Jocelyn also wrote the libretto for Requiem, again with Strasnoy, and based on William Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun; that work was presented in 2014 at Teatro Colón in Strasnoy’s native Argentina.

As well as being known for his directing and writing work, Jocelyn has also worked extensively behind the scenes. In 1995, he joined the Centre de Formation Lyrique of the Opéra National de Paris, where he developed and presented programming of semi-staged operas in the amphitheatre of the Opéra Bastille. In 1998, he became Artistic and General Director of the Atelier du Rhin (Centre Dramatique) in Colmar, a position he would hold for a decade until being named as head of the Canadian Stage Company (2009-2018). In a 2017 interview with theatre writer Robert Cushman, Jocelyn was asked him about the style of theatre he’d hoped to encourage; one which “gives preponderance to the human body as a holder of expression“, he responded, adding that “(d)espite appearances, I’m a classicist.”

That classicist side was given wonderful expression with Hamlet, which had its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017, in a production directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by former Glyndebourne head honcho Vladimir Jurowski. At the time, I wrote in my review for the national Canadian newspaper The Star that Jocelyn’s reordering the narrative added a dramatic immediacy; there’s a psychological closeness that was achieved within and through his smart, insightful writing, one that blended seamlessly with Dean’s varied, beautifully complex score.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

It’s an integration I suspect has deepened with Jocelyn’s own production of the opera, currently on in Cologne. Together with conductor (and composer) Duncan Ward and the Gurzenich-Orchester Köln , Oper Köln’s production (which opened on November 24th) marks Hamlet‘s German premiere. The cast includes bass Joshua Bloom in the duel role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the Gravedigger, baritone Andrew Schroeder as Claudius, mezzo-soprano Dalia Schaechter as Gertrude, soprano Gloria Rehm as Ophelia, and, in the title role, tenor David Butt Philip, who sang the role of Laertes at the work’s 2017 premiere and has since performed Hamlet as well. Jocelyn and I chatted as he was in the midst of rehearsals just before opening.

How is your production of Hamlet going?

It’s going well! It’s a big opera, a huge piece in terms of its concept and in terms of its requirements. It really stretches to the limit the resources of any moderately large opera house that takes it on. So we’re stretching to the limit the resources of Oper Köln, but it’s going for the most part really well. It’s been special to see it all come together.

How much are you thinking back to the production at Glyndebourne, not just stylistically but overall? How much has that influenced what you’re doing now?

From a stylistic point of view, not at all; it was a really beautiful production and a wonderful way to discover the work in the context of opera — it went on to Australia, and it’ll be at a few more places in the coming years too, but this is a very different reading. There’s a very different series of priorities of things to bring to the fore in this production. It’s funny, I sent a note to (original director) Neil (Armfield) the day before rehearsals began here, thanking him for having created such a beautiful narrative production, because it enabled and forced me to not do that. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to test the resilience of the work to a more metaphorical reading, to a parable of some kind. 

So this will be more abstract?

Yes, more abstract.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

You’ve written libretti for other things but this feels different on a few levels; what’s it been like to direct Hamlet, and in Germany?

It’s interesting, I’ve always separated the works — the ones I did, La Paz, or Requiem for Cologne – when I wrote those, I wasn’t saying how I’m going to stage it; I was really trying to write a text that was going to inspire the composer and give the material needed for them, but this time even more so. Because it was Shakespeare and because it was Hamlet, and because I was not going to be directing it, I had a different kind of liberty in thinking things through and then offering them to Brett as material in which to work.

Doing it in Germany now… what’s marvelous about Germany is that they do, insofar as possible… there are resources that are made available. And there is a deep understanding of conceptual – more conceptual and more abstract – work. The audiences are looking for interpretation rather than illustration. And they’re looking for a clear perspective and a clear take, rather than a kind of more illustrative thing. So one feels a liberty working in Germany, in that it is perhaps more elastic than working for audiences that have a lesser habit of experiencing conceptual work. 

And a famous play like Hamlet doesn’t have the same cultural baggage in Germany as it might for English-language audiences.

Definitely, the play is well-known, and for an English audience, it’s very different than for a German audience because a German audience will know a half dozen lines or so, but an English audience will know, for the most part, a hundred different lines from Hamlet – even if you don’t realize they come from Hamlet! The story will be known more or less clearly, so the way in which the libretto twists the story and rethinks things at times, that’s going to be much clearer for an Anglo-Saxon audience than for a German audience, but the objective of the libretto is not to have the audience say, “Oh look! He took that line here and put it there!” or “Oh what a funny twist there!” It’s very much its own thing as a story.

So in a way, working for a German audience is wonderful because either they get it or they don’t, whereas an Anglo-Saxon audience is often thinking, “Oh, isn’t that funny, that scene goes here in opera whereas it goes there in the play!” It can become a bit of a treasure hunt for English audiences, which is not the goal, but it can have that effect on audience members who know the text extremely well.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Photo: Paul Leclaire

So there’s a freedom working in Germany… 

Yes, it’s a huge freedom to work on it here – and also a good way of making sure that the story works on its own without being compared to anything. 

It’s not like you’re presenting Goethe!

That’s right!

What’s been your process working with the cast? 

This is a very actor-heavy – or acting-heavy – opera and production. It really is like acting Shakespeare. You have maybe a quarter or a fifth of the text, but every singer has the full text in their minds – they’ve obviously all read Hamlet before coming into rehearsal. It does require huge dexterity with text. It’s not a text from a Bellini opera, it’s Shakespeare, and every word in the libretto comes from Hamlet except for a couple of chorus passages, so there’s a need for total versatility with language, that tasting, that love of language – the French say “dégustation” – that absolute enjoyment of the language on the tongue and in the mouth.

And because we’re working on a very bare stage, relationships are key, because there’s nothing to hide behind, so the veracity of what the singers are experiencing and communicating to each other and receiving from each other is absolutely essential. We also don’t have huge amounts of time, but before hitting the set itself we had four weeks of time in the rehearsal room to really massage out the essential elements of the opera, the essentially elements of the text, and really explore the spatial relationships and dynamics between characters. And again, time is always the most precious ally one can have when trying to deepen the relationships which will work, whether musically or textually or dramatically.

Duncan Ward conductor music artist baton podium

Photo: Alan Kerr

I would imagine Duncan Ward has been key to that also. 

Duncan is one of those conductors of his generation who is most adept at contemporary music. He’s extraordinarily well-read musically and extremely sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding of the score. He was in the rehearsal room from the second week onwards, and he’s been not only a terrific ally but partner and collaborator, and he is really going to be the one to bring the show to life every evening, because he’s got a wonderful relationship with the orchestra and a wonderful relationship with the singers. He is amazing at holding all these musical textures and musical fabrics together.

The libretto and the score are very intimately linked in this work; how has that intimacy changed in terms of your approach in directing? 

I think that we were very blessed, Brett and I, to come together over a piece such as Hamlet, and to have such similar tastes and such similar desires with regards to this work. There were some quite radical decisions I made as a librettist. I’d say the more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it; he could hear it. When you’re working with a composer, your chief goal is to write things that make him or her hear music and want to create a musical universe around it – so we were blessed in that sense.

In this production I’d say there are a few things that have changed: Brett has added a few bars of music – a few passages here and there, a little bit of chorus to a couple moments – and I added maybe two lines to the text. But I did this a year ago now so it’s in the new score, but there are things I felt had been missing in the original version, and I wanted to draw special attention to them in this version. I wouldn’t say things have changed; it’s more just the joy of rediscovering and taking full advantage of this marriage of text and music you were talking about.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

So not change so much as evolution… 

Yes, a good evolution. This piece is now out there, and hopefully what you’ve heard in terms of an integration of text and music is also heard by other opera houses and it gets produced around the world. Hopefully now it will be part of the 21st century repertory. We’ve been very lucky and very blessed; it went from Glyndebourne to Australia, and it will also be presented by a few organizations in the coming years. For a contemporary opera to have been done with so many houses within a few years of its creation is a pretty lucky thing! Obviously there is an appetite for cracking open this old chestnut and experiencing it in a new and hopefully pertinent way for the 21st century.

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