Tag: literature

Vasily Petrenko: Paying Attention To Details

Vasily Petrenko conductor culture classical music Russian Met opera debut

Photo: CF Wesenberg

The last time Vasily Petrenko and I spoke was in a windowless room full of whirling fans. There’s still a feeling of summer in September in Bucharest, and this year’s heat was particularly intense; I was worried conditions in the Sala Palatului conference room would prove a bit too warm for a conversation about the music of Enescu, Bartók, and Torvund.

The busy conductor, a native of Saint Petersburg, was in town for two concerts as part of the hectic Enescu Festival with his Oslo Philharmonic, of which he is Chief Conductor. (My report on the festival featuring said interview is publishing in the upcoming winter edition of Opera Canada magazine.) Despite the heat, Petrenko was his lovely, chatty self, full of insights, observations, and charming stories. His concerts, with soloists Leif Ove Andsnes and Johannes Moser, respectively, were met with outpourings of loud cheers and happy shrieks, to which he jovially responded with a broad smile, playfully encouraging gestures (one hand, then another, on ears with matching eyebrow waggles and forward-leans), and energetically performed encores.

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At the Enescu Festival, September 2019. Photo: Andrei Gindac

That joviality was revealed again in a more recent conversation, this time over the telephone, with a bit of tags-and-snags at the start. “It’s a big building!” Petrenko exclaimed about the Metropolitan Opera, where he’s making his company debut leading a revival of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (also known as The Queen of Spades), featuring Yusif Ayvazov as the tormented Hermann and Lise Davidsen (also making her Met debut) as Lisa, in a 1995 production by Elijah Moshinsky. Based on the Pushkin novel, the work is set in Saint Petersburg and is a haunting love-gone-awry tale with strong elements of the supernatural, the sadistic, and the spiritual. The production opens tonight (November 29th) and will be broadcast live on Met Opera Radio on SiriusXM as well as streamed at the Met Opera’s website.

Petrenko is making his Metropolitan Opera debut amidst a raft of conducting duties. As well as being Chief Conductor with the Oslo Philharmonic, he is also Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and European Union Youth Orchestras, and Principal Guest Conductor, State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (“Evgeny Svetlanov”). As of 2021, he becomes Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and has big plans for presenting the work of Mahler. His latest albums including a beautiful, sensitive recording of Beethoven’s First and Second Piano Concertos with pianist Boris Giltburg and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos), and another (again with the RLPO) featuring the music of Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Shchedrin, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninoff (Onyx).

These are part of a vast discography comprised of  Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Strauss, Liszt, Szymanowski, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, and more; when I interviewed Petrenko this past spring following the announcement of his Royal Philharmonic appointment, I swooned over the awesome beauty of his Elgar interpretation, writing the recordings “brim a lively, warm energy, a keen forward momentum, effervescent textures and poetic nuance, underlining the joy, drama and humanity so central to Elgar’s canon.” That humanity is so palpable experiencing Petrenko live. It’s hard to overstate the warmth he brings to even the most brutal of scores, an innate beauty which allows the listener to experience deeper, more vivid shades and textures. Much of that comes down to a detailed approach, something Petrenko emphasized in this, our latest conversation, with him happily chatting for thirty minutes between rehearsal sessions at the Met.

Petrenko’s current experience in the Big Apple has not been without surprises. The Queen of Spades, meant to have been his New York debut, was temporarily placed to the side when Petrenko stepped in at the very last moment earlier this month to replace Mariss Jansons on the podium on what turned out to be the final stop on the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) tour. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise, timing, and as it turns out, knowing Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 very, very well. Critics were effusive in their praise of the concert, with Musical America hailing Petrenko’s “palpable sense of musical storytelling” and noting his “hard-driven approach… added a welcome edge of hysteria to the suspiciously sugary main theme. A willingness throughout his reading to explore ambiguities often hiding in plain sight gave the rush to the finish a quality that was both exhilarating and appropriately double-faced.” The praise, however, doesn’t feed in to pressure, because as Petrenko explains, that feeling comes from a different and far more personal place. I’ll let him explain.

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Mariss Jansons. Photo: Martin Walz (via Berliner Philharmoniker)

Update: Maestro Mariss Jansons passed away on November 30th, 2019, one day after this feature was posted. On his Facebook page, Petrenko wrote about his experience with the famed Latvian conductor:

I have always felt like I am walking a little in some of the footsteps of Mariss Jansons: most tangibly in the personal and artistic footprints he left with his long and illustrious tenure at the Oslo-Filharmonien, where it is such an honour to be his successor, but he has been a defining and deeply beloved presence from my earliest days, attending his rehearsals and masterclasses in St Petersburg, and through his legacy of concerts, recordings, lessons and advice, that have always been a touchstone for me. Thank you, dear Maestro, for all you’ve given to us, for your smile, generosity and warmth, and for simply bringing all of your heart into our musical world. It was a joy to be able to make music last week with your wonderful colleagues in the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, although those circumstances are now framed with such sadness. You will always be alive in our memories, in our souls and in our performances.

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Larissa Diadkova as the Countess in The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

How are rehearsals for The Queen Of Spades going?

We just finished one rehearsal and ready for another in forty-five minutes. It’s a lot of work as always and especially for the last ten days for so before the first night, so we’re all working hard at the moment.

And you were at Carnegie Hall too!

(Laughs) I was there yesterday just to listen… 

How did it happen that you stepped in for Mariss Jansons? You studied under him at one point, yes?

I grew up attending his rehearsals and concerts with the Leningrad Philharmonic, and later in the Conservatory I had Master Classes with him. I wouldn’t say we’re friends – there’s a big age gap between us and he’s from a different generation – but we spoke with each other several times and in some ways I’m following his path in Oslo, with the Philharmonic there.

What happened here is that after rehearsals here at the Met one day I came home, and had a phone call about midnight actually, asking if I could be available for the next day’s concert at Carnegie Hall. I said it would be my greatest honour to save the concert and to help with Mariss if he will not be able to conduct for the next day. They didn’t change the program, and luckily I know all the pieces very well – I had performed them many, many times – so it was a case of, let’s see what tomorrow brings and in the morning we’ll have a decision. So the next day I went to the Pique Dame rehearsals at the Met in the morning, and during that time I was brought the scores for the BRSO concert, and after that there was a forty-five-minute rehearsal with the (BRSO) in the evening, and then the concert. They are a great band, an incredible orchestra with a lot of incredible soloists – one of the top bands in the world – and, to their credit, they are also very flexible. I haven’t heard how Mariss interprets Shostakovich 10 with them so I guess I was doing it slightly different than he had done it on tour, but for orchestra to be able to follow with different interpretation almost without any rehearsal…  huge kudos to them. The chemistry happened very quickly between me and the orchestra. I think part of it is because there was no other option! It was a great pleasure to be stage and it was a good concert, and it was a good party after the concert! They’d had the last concert on their autumn tour and were departing back home.

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At Carnegie Hall, November 2019. Photo: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

So you got a direct taste of New York audiences through this.

It was a very warm audience, with a lot of cheering and applause. I visited Geffen Hall for a concert with the New York Philharmonic, in which Esa Pekka (Salonen) was conducting the other week, and I’ve seen things here in the Met too, and you always sense a lot of excitement with audiences and a lot of openness and cheering, which is always very nice for the artists.

How much of that creates pressure creatively?

I think talking about pressure… to me honestly, the pressure is always only about myself, it’s only about doing better than the last performance. It’s a sort of perfectionist pressure which I always have in my veins, and which I always feel in that sense.

So how does that translate into a house like the Met? 

It’s one of the largest opera houses in the world, and we are trying to do our best, listening to several performances of operas over the past few weeks. I’m also figuring out how to do things in the pit while balancing onstage action to allow the soloists and music to sound natural in such a big place.

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A scene from Act II of The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

You have an interesting personal history with this opera.

I was in it as a boy in the 1980s, as a member of the famous production at the Kirov Opera, because I studied at this special boys school, and several students from there were usually in this production as a choir, so I was one of the boys singing. There are a lot of memories. Later I did a production at the Maly, one of my first revivals was actually was at the Maly Opera Theatre, now the Mikhailovsky in Saint Petersburg, when I was working there; then I did a revival in Hamburg, so (Pique Dame) has been with me throughout my life. I think it’s one of the greatest operas ever written. It has so much meaning and passion, so much philosophical subtext. If you read the Pushkin novel, that’s one of the most incredibly written, equilibristic pieces of literature; it’s compact, it has all these E.T.A Hoffman-meets-Mephistopheles elements in it, and the history and the language, as well as the symbolic things, are absolutely incredible. Very few pieces of Russian literature within the short novel genre surpass this one by Pushkin.

How do you express all that in a production that is so well-known?

There’s always a place for some mystery and symbolism – the Countess breaking through the floor in the scene with Hermann, that’s a moment! Is it his vision? Is it real? When she appears at the end with the gambling scene, is it his vision? What happened with Lisa? There’s plenty of questions you have to answer for yourself. What is the main intention of Hermann? Is it cards alone or related to self-establishment? He’s a German person who lives in Russia in a very different society and deliberately decided to live there, even though it’s not the most happy life in the beginning, and where it leads him… there’s plenty of angles in this opera, and working with soloists and talking about all of this, with sections, and trying to find the right colors in the orchestration and the right balance in the orchestra itself, it’s one of the processes we’re in now.

Vasily Petrenko conductor culture classical music Russian Met opera debut

Photo: CF Wesenberg

How has your understanding changed, especially in light of your symphonic work?

Quite often people ask me what’s different between orchestral and opera conducting, and I think a while ago I found a good image, which is quite true: when you conduct an orchestra it’s driving a car; when you conduct opera, it’s driving a truck or big van. On one hand, driving a car is more manoeuvrable, also you all enjoy company of yourself and you’re not caring so much about certain aspects – you can do what you want, and quickly. When you drive a truck you should be aware of all the movements – the time and response of this big vehicle are paramount – but on the other hand, you can bring many more goods to the people. 

But you have to be more careful about delivering them.

It’s different, because opera has many more people involved, rather than in symphonic concerts. However, the principles are the same. Even in very loud moments, you have to be aware of the transparency of what the composer has written, and you must pay very big attention to all the details the composer put in the score, either in a symphony or opera, and then there is also that something which is beyond the notes: what is most important? What is this music written for? What are the emotions? The philosophic concepts? What is the impact on the audience? It’s not just quavers and semiquavers and quarter notes, it’s moving beyond that. We’re going this direction in both opera and symphony. And of course, when you work in opera, you aim to be careful of the balance between orchestra and soloists and choir. This production has such an incredible cast, each one is outstanding. I’m very lucky to have all of them onstage, and a great chorus too – they’re doing a very good job. I think we have one live broadcast too!

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Lise Davidsen as Lisa and Yusif Eyvazov as Hermann in The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So perhaps just a bit of pressure for that live broadcast… ?

I don’t feel pressure about that, really. Again, I’m more thinking about how musically it will all go together, and how I can deliver, how things can gel together – all the soloists, all the orchestra, and all the technicians. There’s a number of scenic effects, some moments when you have to wait or slow down the pace just to achieve the synchronicity between staging and music. It’s a classy production, I’d say. Saint Petersburg is one of the classiest cities in the world for its architecture, especially the Winter Palace – there’s no comparison to it around the world, it’s a unique creation of Peter The Great – so it’s the same feeling in a classy production. There are plenty of details but none of them is not necessary, all of them are very logical and in exactly the right places. 

Do you match that or build on it?

Both. In some places you have to match that, especially in a place where there’s big moving pieces onstage, you have to pace the music so it synchronizes with closings or openings of certain things at some points, on top of all the classical details. I’m adding articulations, for example in the Pastoral, which is written in the way going back into, not Baroque music, but earlier than Mozart; at the same time it’s music-making by Lisa and Pauline, who are playing these Mozart-type arias at home, so for that, there has to be, from the orchestra, this way of playing “a la Mozart” in some ways in terms of style. On the other hand, you still need the feeling they’re trying hard but not professional musicians, as they are not in the libretto; they are, in the tradition of aristocracy, learning music for entertainment, so on top of this classical scene, it’s figuring out how to enrich and give to the audience this understanding of a whole type of music-making within the scene.

How much is your approach influenced by your recordings?

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 is one of the most close to Mendelssohn and his territory – Pique Dame has this, a little bit lighter approach into the orchestration in general. During the recording cycle of the (Tchaikovsky symphonies) 4, 5, and 6 a few years ago I said to the orchestra, “Please, let’s not think of him only as this emotional, hysterical type – think about him as a man who spent actually at least three to four months outside of Russia, mainly in Italy, but also Austria, Germany, France – he opened Carnegie Hall!” He was a man traveling a lot and absorbing a lot of principles of other composers. And also there’s a lot of a German way of orchestrating in the symphonies and in Pique Dame. He used all the principles of orchestration of the time, he attended Wagner operas, he was a man who knew so much about the world tradition and that’s what makes him so unique; he had a pure Russian soul and a German way of orchestration, and that’s what I’m trying for in the symphonies, and in some places in Pique Dame

Too often Tchaikovsky’s music is presented in just one way. 

I think you can always find something new, even in the most played and performed score. I’m always trying to find the details, and get from the orchestra and singers something written in the score but probably obscured during tradition, because it is there you get to be very authentic. The devil is in the details, as they say. 

Especially in this opera!

So true!

Will this lead to more opera for you then? 

I hope to do more opera in the future than I was doing recently; I hadn’t done it simply because I was so busy with so many orchestras, but I hope for more productions in more houses.

And in-concert presentations also?

In-concert yes, we are planning a few things for 2020-2021… there are a few things, even some less-frequently performed operas but still great operas which are cooking at the moment. Stay tuned! 

Counting From One To Ten (But Not In That Order)

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#7BooksILove (Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

#HBD is probably the most common hashtag I use online. I use it to mark birthdays of artists, musicians, poets, and others whose work I admire. Overall though, online trends are not things I tend to engage in. I know about them, working for myself and needing to be aware of what’s popular when, but rare is the moment when I feel inspired to partake, partly out of a fierce desire to protect my non-online life , partly because the trend will fall a little too far outside my interests; also, my style simply doesn’t fit the compact style social media promotes. (My #SaturdayThoughts are here, and they are more than 280 characters.)

The pullback in personal online shares has been gradual if needed; I tend to agree with a blunt assessment on the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter triumvirate made to me last year, that their nature is essentially “vampiric.” I will only add that one can play the vampire as much as the victim here, and I have certainly drunk more than my fair share of digital blood, in the form of music, movies, history, and art, as well as an unfettered love of Mariella Frostrup columnsBBC Food, and cat pages. (A million thanks to Curious Zelda.) Curation — of what I share, what I imbibe, how I do both, when, and in what spirit — matters, and is largely a private matter.

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#7BooksILove Day 3/7. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

So I surprised myself in choosing to partake in a recent revelation of favorite books on Twitter. Nominated by Washington Post classical journalist Anne Midgette with #7BooksILove, I shared a variety of titles from different points in my life, with no explanations and no respective personal histories. (A similar nomination took place on Facebook a while ago with music albums, and I am still mulling participation; my Instagram is full of record covers, after all. ) The photos are not perfect; I don’t care. For those wondering, “why all the legs? Don’t you ever wear pants?!” — again, the answer is spontaneity; I grabbed a book, flopped on a chair, and took the photo. (Also I largely favor dresses in my wardrobe; for days off, large shirts.) The pose was semi-planned (you have to see the covers somehow) but also intended as a simple reflection of my life and ethos — one integrating curiosity, intellect, sensuality, the vividness of living. This vividness is something I admit to currently finding difficulty in keeping and cultivating lately, perhaps an important reminder to myself, that amidst so many changes and challenges of late, it’s important to keep (nay, cultivate) the parts of my identity where beauty, wonder, and the ever-present sensuality so central to my life and being can eat, drink, dance, and also stop, embrace, and inhale, free and unencumbered.— well, as free as I choose to be online, that is, in my big shirt, on my big fancy chair, feet up.

Doing this list was ultimately a useful cosmic reminder of  accepting what was and what is, a notion applicable to method as much as to content; it took more than seven days to complete this task. It was once said about director Francis Ford Coppola that “he can count from one to ten, but not in that order.” I relate to a similarly scattershot, non-linear, non-conventional thinking and approach to living. In learning to navigate a life free from maternal influence and its concomitant harsh judgement, it is liberating to give one’s self permission to explore the unorthodox person within (the artist? I wonder this), a figure who forced into the shadows for so long. In my teaching life, lessons do go from A to B to C as they must, but they might incorporate A flat, C sharp, diminished fifth, dominant seventh (and so on) along the way, and my students might tell you (I hope?) it makes for a rather less dry learning experience. Explorations across the digital realm (and that includes my professional writing work) move in similar ways — the greatest difficulty has been in sustaining the tone. Ah, the ever-present digitally-inspired attention deficit; combine it with the weighty responsibilities and ever-expanding anxieties of older age, and one is sometimes left with impatience instead of enlightenment , impotence in place of inspiration — cracked eggs over Kandinsky, you might say. The course of any serious study requires diligence, dedication, and concentration, even (or especially) voyages within the creative realm. Clarity can emerge from chaos, but that chaos has its own kind of order and definition and schedule that can (and probably should) change with every experience.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That shouldn’t mean leaving spontaneity by the wayside, however. As I wrote, the photos of the books were done spontaneously, and the choices made as to which books I’d share was equally unplanned. Still, I admit relishing the mystery folded into this entire process: Here’s a little slice of my life; no, I’m not telling you more; here’s a bit of me but no more than that, hurrah! There is a great value and power to mystery, particularly in this reveal-all, tell-all age, which leaves little if anything to the imagination — notably when it comes to the lives of women. I am aware of this reality, and have learned to deal with it in different ways since my first posts on social media more than a decade ago. A mix of spontaneity and mystery seems like the best recipe I can muster when dealing with the sometimes welcome, sometimes-unwelcome nature of the digital realm. You can hit “delete” in your online life, but technology has a memory; there’s a reason the word “branding” has become so popular. Similarly, there’s no “delete” button in life. The consequences of choice can be dire, but they can also be surprising, strange, beautiful. Sometimes it’s worth the effort and the inevitable mess to apply a pure color, to scrape it off, to reveal something entirely new; to take away a note, to add a pause, to leave unsaid what escapes mere language —  each act a mystery, a prayer, a stab at grace. There are no hashtags for such moments; there is only the beautiful silence unfolding between the bleeps and bloops of new, unfolding life.

Bruno Ganz, A French Novel, And Grappling With Loss

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Detail from the top of the Opera Garnier, Paris. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

This morning I sat in my light-strewn living room, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, impatiently waiting for the espresso to gurgle itself to sharp, acid life, when I learned of the passing of Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. Known for his roles as the angel Damiel in Das Himmel uber Berlin and Hitler in Downfall, Ganz was active mainly in Europe, and was known for stage, screen, and symphonic appearances. He was friends with Claudio Abbado, and among many readings, offered the work of German poet Hölderlin at a tribute concert to the late conductor in 2014. I recall seeing Ganz’s name through the years listed in various orchestral program guides in Germany and thinking how special it would be to see him perform live. Alas.

In looking through various reports (including one from a recent project in which Ganz is bearded, and to my eyes, resembles some kind of magical Teutonic Zeus) I was reminded of my introduction to Ganz’s work as a teenager, which was (as I suspect was true for many artsy, angsty teens growing up in 1980s North America), through Der Himmel über Berlin, known to the English-speaking world as Wings of DesireWim Wenders’ poetic meditation on history, spirituality, and human vulnerability left an indelible impression, with Ganz’ expressive face and haunting voice creating a spell that never quite lifted. As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw observed about his performance, “Ganz’s face is delicate and boyish, with an ascetic sensitivity. The poetical presence of his beautifully modulated speaking voice is also what makes the role so memorable.” In seeing the movie again last summer, I found myself weeping at the delivery of certain lines, the framing of a certain shot, the look in the eyes of both Damiel and Marion (Solveig Dommartin) in the club where the roars of Nick Cave create a hypnotizing background din. I’ve not been able to watch it since; emotions come brimming to the surface like uncontrollable hot lava, a reaction I could have never anticipated as a wide-eyed, enchanted teen.

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Still from “Der Himmel über Berlin” (“Wings of Desire”,) 1987.

Such sensitivity has, I realize, become something of a hallmark, one I’ve grappled with to varying degrees of success. Oftentimes that sensitivity and wonder are tied up together in strange configurations and manifest within the cultural realm. The older I get, the more I am amazed at the mechanisms behind how one offsets the other; the way a singer will lean into a note, the resonance of percussion across the vast expanse of a hall, the wet ambiance of strings — things that I find myself invariably and sometimes wordlessly moved by. Writing about such things is no easy task, and it will surprise no one to learn I have taken a step back from such duties. Enthralled, enraptured, enlightened, enraged… enchanted; all these things, and more, live within and can be icily uncomfortable to narrow into the mean parameters defined by the precise and rather severe geometry of language. 

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Enchantment was borne in my younger days through the encouragement of figures who would place challenging things in front of me, things (be they movies, books, TV shows, composer works) they had full faith I would somehow understand and appreciate. I was raised in what might be termed a firmly anti-intellectual household, with newspapers being the only regular reading source (and no, not the fancy, so-called “paper of record,” either); attempting to reach beyond that atmosphere, despite my mother’s (primal if passionate) opera love, was not at all encouraged and was, in fact, basis for fierce and unyielding criticism. But discoveries were always possible; one of those things was Wings of Desire, introduced by a piano teacher (now a dear friend); another was Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love, loaned to me by an arts-loving teacher my final year of high school. (Where or how she got hold of an English translation I cannot say; the work only got a proper one a few short years ago.). Her dog-eared copy, with pencil underlinings from her own younger days (I presumed), brought a world of intrigue and yes, enchantment, setting my Faust-loving imagination aflame. “The devil takes many pleasing shapes” is its premise, with a Borgian-style layers-within-layers narrative, an intentional blurring and integration of the surreal, the Gothic, and the fantastical, and free floating questions of the nature of desire, morality, and abundance, reflecting the spirit of the age in which it was written (1772) and offering a timely-timeless devilishly dialectical dance that you can still shake your ass to in 2019.

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Illustration from the first edition of “The Devil in Love” by Jacques Cazotte. (Photo via the Stanislavsky Theatre).

Alongside updates and tributes to Bruno Ganz on my newsfeed were tidbits about the novel’s operatic translation which recently opened at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, in Moscow. Russian composer Alexander Vustin created the work over several years, finishing it in 1989; the work lay dormant until the theatre decided to feature it to mark their 100th birthday. This work made my list of intriguing things for 2019, and if photos and quick news clips are anything to go on, it’s a production I hope to someday experience live; I remain open to whether the element of enchantment will be as present as it was upon my first reading as a teenager. My acute sensitivities lean in a direction which oppose nostalgia, but embrace reshaping; this quality has inserted itself into areas tangible and not. I have embraced much of what my mother left me as my very own, without (at last) the drama of recrimination or any burden of guilt. It has come as something of a pleasant surprise that the things my mother greatly valued are the things I have allowed myself to reshape and redefine, sometimes with purposeful intent, other times with an unthinking authority that is, I suppose, the natural result of being an only child. Emboldened by a new sort of freedom which arose out of my mother’s passing (a domineering presence rendered into initially shocking absence) meant being allowed to remake her still and finite passions into my wide-ranging passionate pursuits.  Inheritance has become a less a winding lane of the past than an avenue for the future.

Still, the loss of a precious cache of items which had belonged to her has been hard to overcome, not only for the fact they were pregnant with her long ago and far-away memories, but because they were so wrapped up in mine — new, fresh, raw. Without divulging every painful detail, I will only write: in the morning I moved into my current place of residence, I had a box of jewelry and a satchel of pearls; things were delivered and arranged; once that was finished, I passed out in exhaustion, and realized with horror, shortly thereafter, that the box and satchel were nowhere to be found. What did I do, I keep asking myself, to deserve this? Why wasn’t I smarter? Why did this have to happen? My mother’s understanding of (and approach to) the world was built on merit-based effort and behaviour: be a good person, and good things happen; be the opposite, and you deserve what you get. It’s a notion that has tipped the broader world into extreme chaos, and, within my micro one, radiated burning slabs of blame, shame, and a horrible, near-paralyzing sadness. I have kept this information to myself and shared it with only a few (including yes, proper authorities), but those items, I realize with much pain, are not going to magically appear before me, the way Damiel suddenly manifests before Marion, the way Biondetta appears before Alvaro — no angel, no devil, there is only the wide, yawning chasm of loss.

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Hans Brüggemann, Angel Playing the Lute; 1520; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.

The revelation here of my sharp vicissitudes of providence means enduring the inevitable smirks and Schadenfreude of some. I accept this. Various details of my life are, apparently, points of envy — something I find utterly baffling to comprehend. (I envy the presence of their partners, paramours, children, extended relatives, and wide and active social circles, particularly during the lonely holiday periods, but at regular weekends as well.) I have chosen to reveal this personal history in order to embody a dictum I voiced within the past year, one relating to the importance of embracing vulnerability. There are things to be silent about, and things to shout about, and still yet things that straddle between; the point is acknowledging the tender spot within, where vulnerability meets and makes peace with the existential zero of silence. Pema Chödrön might remind me this is precisely where I need to be, in the middle, fully present. It’s hard, and it’s lonely. The symphony of sighs fades in and out; today it was interrupted by the whispering wonder of enchantment. I’m glad I was sensitive enough to listen. Maybe in the spring it will become a song. 

Spirei Stages Falstaff In Parma

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Every time I hear about an opera based on a play, my antenna goes up.

I was a theatre writer before I was an opera writer, and a theatre performer and aficionado before all of that. In my youth I spent countless hours pouring over journals, books, and audio recordings of works by (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) Pinter, Beckett, Miller, Pirandello, Artaud, O’Casey, Orton, Moliere, and of course, Shakespeare. When my mother would take me to operas based on plays, I would always wince, thinking, “surely this won’t be as good as the original.” Ah, youth.

Living in Dublin and London allowed for many fantastic nights of theatre, with some of my favorite moments unfolding at (or being connected with) the Almeida Theatre in Islington, north London. When Jonathan Kent, whose work I had long admired, moved into opera, I was immediately intrigued. The flow between the worlds of theatre and opera has always been a natural one, of course, but owing to youthful arrogance (and more than a bit of romance around the world of theatre), I couldn’t see or appreciate it clearly. I still love theatre but whenever I go now, I find myself missing the music.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff and Sonia Prina as Mrs. Quickly (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Opera is, of course, a fluid art form rich in drama and rife with possibilities for presentation, something various head honchos in opera know and riff on, to frequently wondrous effect. (See: Barry Kosky’s work, especially with Komische Oper Berlin; the work of Pierre Audi and Robert Carsen;  the recent 017 Festival, courtesy Opera Phildelphia, for just a few examples.) Making opera theatrically gripping isn’t always easy, however much creativity, talent, and goodwill is extant.

When it comes to staging the work of Giuseppe Verdi, who adored the work of Shakespeare, things can get even more sticky. A director is faced with certain choices: do the stodgy Shakespeare thing, involving various shades of grey and frilly collars? Or do super-high-concept, involving surreal set pieces and bizarre effects? Listening to the music and text, together, as one unit, is of course, the director’s job. Italian director Jacopo Spirei excels in integrating drama, visuals, theatricality and music into one satisfying whole. He gets opera, he gets theatre, he gets why you might be resistant to combining them  — and he thinks you should come anyway.

I first spoke with Jacopo earlier this year when he directed Don Giovanni at the San Francisco Opera, in a remount of a work originally done by Gabriel Lavia in 2011. He’s just opened his entirely-own production of Falstaff at the Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy. Having gotten his start working with British director Graham Vick (who has a production of Stiffelio at this year’s Festival Verdi involving the audience standing and moving), I thought Spirei’s thoughts around the theatre-meets-opera issue would be very valuable.

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and involves the jocular title character, Sir John Falstaff, in various misadventures with a variety of ladies and angry husbands. Basically, Sir John’s giant ego gets him in trouble. Frequently played as a jolly big man with a beard and a rolling laugh, this famous literary character is often presented as the stuff of stage comedy, a figure we laugh with and laugh at, a bon vivant whose lust for life knows no bounds. This is fun, but I wondered if Jacopo saw something more; the photos of the production (which I will be seeing the end of this month) seem to suggest so, with a dirty Union Jack flag being used at various points, to say nothing of baritone Roberto de Candia’s dishevelled appearance and modern dress. What was Jacopo thinking as he directed this in one of Italy’s most notoriously fussy houses for opera? Find out.

How is directing an opera based on Shakespeare different?

We could say that Verdi and Shakespeare is a very happy match; whenever the two have met great art has been produced.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Who is Sir John Falstaff? What does he have to say to us in 2017?

It’s easier to say what Falstaff is not: he’s not a moral creature, he’s not young, he’s not thin, but he has been in the past all of these things. Falstaff is a man who has known glory, wealth, poverty, defeat and survived through it all with a smile and a philosophy. He tells us how morals and honor are just words created but mankind. He’s a man who survives, who values a good glass of wine more than many words; at the same time he’s a man who represents old values in a changing society, so he’s a character that, like every human being, lives in a constant contradiction. He does not understand the modern world but also wants to participate in it, does not want to let go, wants to show that he still “has it.” I can’t think of anything more actual than that — we live in a “like” obsessed society where youth and beauty is the only value. It’s not easy being old today!!!

There is a tendency with many productions of Falstaff to emphasize the comic aspects; your production seems more serious and thoughtful. Why this approach?

The opera is funny, but not comic. It’s an opera about different stages of life, and has a strong dose of cynicism; it’s a comedy with teeth! I have approached the opera from the text, like Verdi did, so I’ve developed what’s on the page, I have researched with the cast and what we’ve discovered is what we are presenting to the audience today.

The cast of ‘Falstaff’ (Photo Roberto Ricci)

The design sense of this production is very unique: contemporary, somewhat expressionist, familiar. What were your visual influences? What was your process with designer Nikolaus Webern?

With Nikolaus we always start from the text and we discuss a lot before even starting to design. One big element  that inspired us is the weight of the protagonist that creates an imbalance in the perfect lives of Windsor’s bourgeois world, so we have worked on this loss of balance in life.

A great visual influence for me came from all the years working at Glyndebourne, so the village, the house, the pub — they’re somewhat related to those years where I was assisting Graham Vick and reviving his shows in this magical festival. You can see in the show the village of Lewes, the house of the owners of the festival and in fact. almost every single pub in the neighbourhood.

Giorgio Caoduro (Ford) in a scene from ‘Falstaff’ (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

How much did Brexit influence your direction with this work?

Funny you ask — whenever I presented the production to the cast and the theatre I said, “Falstaff at the time of Brexit.” In a way there is a relationship to what’s happening to England now, but I’ve treated it more as an example than anything else. I believe we have a lot to learn from what England is going through politically and socially. I don’t and never believed that division is the answer. In a bizarre way England is behaving like Falstaff, still thinking an Empire is possible and not accepting reality and how the world has changed. Brexit has been a very divisive subject within England and Great Britain in general.

What’s it like to direct at Festival Verdi in Parma, a city known for its strong opera opinions?

It’s an honor to be directing at this prestigious festival next to names like Vick and (Hugo) De Ana (directing Jerusalem at the Festival Verdi this year); I was thrilled at the idea of working in Verdi’s land for an audience that loves and deeply knows Verdi. I enjoyed the process, never fearing any good or bad reaction from the audience. As long as you are loyal to your vision, there’s nothing to fear.

A More Intimate Experience



I moved from Dublin to London a little over ten years ago. My head was full of poetry, music, art and anxiety. I loved writing and I loved writers. While I have a hard time remembering my last few months in Ireland, one event, driven by this passion, sticks out: seeing Nick Cave twice in one day.

The lanky, deep-voiced Australian artist was in Dublin on the lecture circuit, delivering his treatise on the relationship between creativity, poetry, life, and love. He held an afternoon chat, during which he would occasionally break away to play the odd tune on a grand piano. I recall his stripped-down version of “West County Girl,” with its dramatic, low-roaring ending of “then purrrrrs… AGAIN” sent chills down my spine. He talked about saudade. He talked about owning grief. He talked about Jesus, creation, the Old Testament, the New, an the relationship of art -of writing -to each. Fancying myself a true writer, I was in love with Cave’s dramatic, deeply-felt works, even if I didn’t quite have the life experience to fully understand them. And a writer talking about writing… was manna from heaven. Verging on broke, I took what little I had and bought another ticket for the same talk happening that evening. I filled an entire journal with notes hastily scribbled during his chat, and once I’d run out of ink, I sat, silent and pie-eyed, hoping to someday be half the writer Cave was -and indeed, still is.

Cave has never shied away from showing his writerly streak, in all its flagrant glory. Part of this, for those who know his work, comes from his early exposure to literature courtesy of his English teacher-father, who died when Cave was still quite young. Known for his work with the Bad Seeds, Cave also published And the Ass Saw The Angel (Harper Collins) in 1989, a wildly surreal, violent, bizarre work that was equally potent, poetic, and memorable. He’s always worn his love for the written word proudly on his sleeve. He says (in the clip above) that his work has always been “bursting at the seams with lyrical information” -which is putting it mildly in terms of his own gift with words. As befits a rock and roll guy with a poetic streak, he credits music for giving life to his words, noting there’s “a musical rhythm to the language.” But his heart’s still firmly with those words, just as much as it is with tones, sounds, and rhythms.

The Death Of Bunny Munro (Harper Collins) is Nick Cave’s latest novel. While I’m not the biggest fan of some of his more recent music (Grinderman being the exception), I admit that the novel is deeply intriguing. It’s as if, in embracing his literary side, he’s also embracing the aggressively male side that characterized at least a portion of his work in the 1990s with the Bad Seeds (the stuff I particularly adored then, natch); it’s like Cave is exercising (not exorcising) that still-remnant Bad Seed, the one that’s been at least outwardly tamed by domestic responsibility. He can live in the squalid, dark corners of his imagination through writing, without robbing the his other creative pursuits of their pungency.

I’m really glad to see Cave still writing, and still exploring this important side of his artistry. And I’m glad he’s being honest about it, in traveling through this kind of dark, non-cuddly terrain. Artists worth their salt shouldn’t, by their nature, always release likable, easily-digestible stuff. The artists I happen to love the most, that tend to stay with me longest, often release work that is challenging, thought-provoking, hard -and distinctly non-nice. Record companies may not always like their artists’ extra-curricular creative activities, but… balls, I do, and some of them enjoy doing it, too. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps sanity intact for artist and audience alike.

That doesn’t mean sales don’t matter, though. As if to underline this, Bunny Munro was itself released in three formats: hardcover, audio book, and iPhone application. The audio book version includes a score by Dirty Three member/Bad Seed/scary-lookin’ dude Warren Ellis. The audio book intrigues because you get Cave’s deep voice giving a deeply-dramatic rendering of his own words (I remember in Dublin he called them “children,” which I was chuffed at, referring as I did then to my own work in the exact same way); in addition, you get Ellis’ intuitive musical underscoring, creating an eerie, atmospheric complement. If you have an iPhone, you can partly-read, partly-listen, using the specially-designed app. Who would’ve thought books would be so easy, so multi-faceted, so … octopus-like in reach, scope, presentation and marketing? I don’t buy the whole romantic notion of “simple appeal” even though I do enjoy the sensual appeal of the tangible (I mean hell, I love cooking, right?). I love how technology and tradition have married with The Death Of Bunny Munro, and I love that Nick Cave is so very open to it. He says he wrote the first chapter on his iPhone, and the rest in longhand. And yet he equally admits that sitting down with a book is probably more intimate.

This balance between tradition and technology is really refreshing; its equal embrace by an artist of Cave’s calibre is downright inspiring. I haven’t decided which format I’ll get yet, but I’m leaning at the audio book -if only to hear that dramatic voice reading words rendered by mind, heart, and those long, elegant fingers. I ran into Cave -by accident or some grand intelligent design -several time after I moved from Dublin to London. He was in Toronto recently to read from Bunny Munro and do a raft of interviews as well as a book signing. When I heard his voice on the radio, I smiled. My romantic ideas around writing have totally vanished, but Cave’s respect for his art is a boon to me still. And I can’t wait to be corrupted by Bunny.

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