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

Catherine Foster soprano British singer vocal voice sing portrait

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.

Personal Essay: “Flowers, Meadows, Hills”… And Walls

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Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786) by Tischbein

Walls have been on my mind over the last few weeks and throughout the year. Their physical forms have made the news, in past and present iterations, with invisible counterparts revealing divisions within the worlds of culture, politics, and self. There is an odd, illusory comfort to them, the notions of order, permanence, stability they imply allowing for realizations of often staunchly-defended functionalities so delicate they may crack at the slightest hint of perceived disorder. One hates to admit wanting certain forms of them.

This winter I have naught to look at in my minuscule back garden but a high fence, erected at my request this summer. I’m still tossing around the merits of planting things around its wooden edges come springtime; I love (and painfully miss) the feel of soil on my hands and running through my fingers. Looking at a blank fence now brings memories of the cute, strange, unexpected buds that would poke through the old one that ran the perimeter of the immense garden behind the tiny house where I grew up. I remember looking out the kitchen window and being awed and perplexed by the unsymmetrical lattice patterns their insistent tendrils would make in the late afternoon sun, the greens, reds, and rust browns dancing in the shifting light. It made the fence oddly pretty, made spring seem somehow less distant.

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Bud against a fence. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Walls and their winding, decorative counterparts have always existed in the world of classical culture. Division and debate have occurred (and continue) on the stage, in the pit, in the boardroom, on the bus and the metro — in bars, parks, galleries, galleys, bedrooms. Though there is the strong (and not incorrect) belief that art is the ultimate dissolver of walls, such a divine theory often fails when put into human practise, our foibles making such manifestation a challenge, even in ideal circumstances. We, and the connections we form, are a dynamic part of creation: human thoughts, words, and actions place slats, tear them down, replace them, tear them down. The energy created from that creation-destruction cycle sharpens the intermeshing wires of existence (class, wealth, race, gender, geography, health, age), and colour the way we experience concerts, operas, each other. The dissolution of walls demands true openness, curiosity, risk… a hunger for authenticity, something one may speak about at length but which can only find true manifestation in life. In short: talk is cheap. In my conversation with Lera Auerbach at the Enescu Festival earlier this year, she underlined the importance of this quality and its relationship to art — as an experiential rite of passage, and broader life journey — more than once, making me think harder still about all the walls and fences both in and outside of music, and writing. What if authentic connection is the ultimate “wall” to be crossed? Is it possible, in art and in life?

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Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler

Famed German writer Goethe, whose work I referenced this past summer in relation to German composer George Katzer and his “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), tackled various types of walls throughout his wide range of poetry and novels. His works teem with characters who seek some way to live with authenticity – in spirit, in self, in practise. “Szene” takes this theme and goes further, using Goethe’s words to question, prod, and mock the then-contemporary East German regime under which it was created, satirizing its bureaucratic control of artistic exploration and expression. The chamber group ensemble unitedberlin, who performed “Szene” at the Konzerthaus Berlin in June as part of a larger program, was founded when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was a richly resonant and very timely choice to feature Katzer’s work as part of the group’s thirtieth anniversary concert, not only because of Katzer’s own history, but because of the rising political and social tensions within Germany itself. They are wars in which Schubert would have, I suspect, recognized and understood.

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827)

I’ve been thinking a lot about his lieder lately, not least because of thinking back to a concert of Schubert lieder by soprano Golda Schultz in Berlin this past summer, as well as a recent conversation with baritone Gerald Finley in relation to a recent (gorgeous) recording he made of the composer’s Schwanengesang with pianist Julius Drake. To say the composer loved the work of Goethe is putting things mildly; Schubert set no less than eighty of Goethe’s poems to music, with at least a third of them written when he was still a teenager, between 1814 and 1815. As music writer Kenneth S. Whitton noted in his book Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond (Amadeus Press, 1999), “The musicality of Goethe’s words unlocked Schubert’s unique voice, and continued to inspire Schubert for the rest of his life…”. The composer died in 1828, having never met his literary hero, but before that, he composed a song for a scene from Faust, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the spinning wheel”), written when Schubert was seventeen. One of the most famous and beloved of Schubert’s lied, the work deals with some very real societal walls. The tale of the heroine’s seduction and subsequent abandonment by the titular anti-hero, followed by her trial and execution for the murder of her child, had a terrible resonance; stories of infanticide by desperate, socially-outcast unwed mothers (who dealt with very real walls of their own in the times in which they lived) were not uncommon in the poet and the composer’s day.

Setting such subject matter to song gave Goethe’s words — and its horrific reality — an especially disturbing resonance, one more fully realized in “Gretchen im Zwinger” (also known as “Gretchen’s Plea”). Music is not merely an echo of text here but experience, one that transcends the limitations — the walls, if you will — imposed by the verbal. This transcendence has real-life roots, however, giving these works an earthiness that roots them to lived human experience and suffering. One does feel the soil of the earth in his compositions, and rightly so.

Equally human are his Suleika works. Johannes Brahms once said of the first of its two parts (written in 1821) that it was “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The lied are based on Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (West–Eastern Divan), written between 1814 and 1819 (an expanded version appeared in 1827), with the Book Of Suleika being one of its twelve sections, and one of its lengthiest. Inspired by the work of Persian poet Hafez and greatly aided by translations of said work by historian Joseph von Hammer, West-östlicher Divan was the final major cycle of poetry Goethe wrote before his passing in 1832. Along with Schubert, other composers, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg, set verses from Suleika to music; there’s a musicality to the words that beg for sonic expression:

How your wings in gentle movement-
In my breast awaken longings —
Flowers, meadows, hills and forests —
Stand beneath teardrops of your soft breath.

Yet your mild and balmy blowing
Cools my eyelids’ painful aching —
Oh, for sorrow I would die —
When I could not hope to see his face.

Hurry, now to my beloved —
Speaking softly to his heart, (oh,)
Careful never to distress him —
Hiding from him all my torment.

As it turns out, The Book Of Suleika (which means “seductress” in Arabic) may have not been written by Goethe at all, so much as edited; there is suspicion (however contentious) that the actual writer could have been Austrian dancer and actress Marianne von Willemer. Married and thirty-five years the poet’s junior, von Willemer and Goethe engaged in a passionate correspondence when the poet was at his height of his fame, despite being married to Christiane Vulpius, regarded as his social and intellectual inferior – a woman with whom he knocked down walls himself, living scandalously unwed for eighteen years before marrying and having five children with her (only one survived). Vulpius suffered a series of serious health challenges (including a stroke) before her passing in 1816. We don’t know what she made of the predictably large galaxy of worshipful fangirls who threw themselves at her husband; it would seem Goethe himself was always “in love” (in a clichéd fashion) and cycled through numerous affairs (physicalized and not) before, during, and after his marriage, his writing ever expanding in incredible breadth and scope. As writer Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker in 2016, “(f)or Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!””

The dividing lines between artist and behaviour can sometimes be very hazy indeed, let alone its connection to the actual art being produced amidst such circumstances, but Suleika offers a meta-narrative (however inadvertent) in the form of a small if captivating bud poking through some rather tall fences, ones with slats labelled “genius,” “worship,” “art”, even up to our own time. It’s in such unexpected invasions one can find the truest sort of authenticity, or so I’d like to believe. In the notes for Hyperion’s immense Schubert: The Complete Songs box set, pianist and song specialist Graham Johnson writes:

Schubert had written nothing as openly impassioned as this for woman’s voice since the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’; that work had been shot through with the anguish of betrayal, but here we hear only the rapture of reciprocation. True enough, it is the rapture of Marianne’s and Goethe’s fantasy of union, but who was better placed than Schubert to fantasize alongside them about the love which he could never enjoy in reality? […] Schubert has allowed the two lovers to conjoin where the disparity between their ages as well as geographical distance defeated them in real life.

After attending Schultz’s concert earlier this year, I remember looking down to see various markers on the Berlin sidewalks, plaques indicating where the Berlin Wall once stood. I’ve walked across and on them innumerable times, but something about that night — the sight of them, with the sound of Schubert still buzzing in ears and vibrating in heart, combined with my walled view now — renders them more poignant. Physical walls fall, others become more fortified.

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In Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Maybe it’s good to look back – and while we’re at it, around, up, and down – at the ground, the pavement, the plastic, at the base of the posts we’ve so keenly laid slat after slat  across. Is it a chaos we’re afraid of, or our own perceptions – us– being changed? Perhaps it’s time, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, to find the cracks that let the green through, and time to be unafraid of feeling our hands in the warm soil once more. Nothing real grows otherwise. 

‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ In Berlin: “The Love Is In Me”

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Sarah Grether (Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Inner questions ran rampant during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) at Staatsoper Berlin this past Sunday. There was only one gazelle depicted onstage, but a veritable herd presented themselves with every moment, each one leaping with questions: what do the unborn children represent? Why do they matter? Should they symbolize something else, and if so, what?

These are the questions at the heart of this opera, and in German director Claus Guth’s production, the questions became meditations. Strauss’s 1919 opera, with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a symbolic tale of two worlds haunted by absence – namely of that ultimate symbol of family, children, but also, it must be noted, of mothers; the “woman” of the title, the ethereal Empress (whose mother is entirely absent), seeks her “shadow” (symbolizing children) in the world of humans, specifically via a Dyer, Barak, and his Wife, otherwise her husband (The Emperor) will be turned to stone. Guth stages the piece as the dream of The Empress, a vision that awakens into the consciousness of a need for her own inner revolution —and evolution. In many ways the production is an operatic Rorschach test of sorts (with ink blots in the program too), tied to themes of culture, family, experience, lived circumstance and accumulated moments. What do we carry from our families into our adult lives? How do we reconcile being the “shadow” of another, and casting our own? What responsibility do we bear to one another, and, just as importantly, to ourselves and the expression of our needs?

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Iréne Theorin (Barak’s wife), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Wolfgang Koch (Barak). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

A co-production with Teatro Alla Scala di Milano (where it was presented in 2012) and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (staged in 2014), the award-winning presentation, first presented in Berlin in April 2017, features fantastical elements and beautiful, Expressionist-style designs by Christian Schmidt. Instead of merely presenting pretty pictures, Guth wisely uses the assorted imagery to underline Frau‘s thematic resonance, allowing one to more clearly recognize and accept human fallibility, especially within the delicate arena of relationship.  The dynamics inherent those relationships is squarely the focus, with very little romanticizing despite Strauss’s rich score; it is a world fraught with  miscommunication, dysfunction, and deeply repressed fury. The length of the work (roughly four hours, with two intermissions), combined with a very intense musicality and highly allegorical narrative, means it can be a somewhat daunting work for newcomers, but the rewards, musically and otherwise, are immense. My premiere experience seeing Die Frau ohne Schatten live at the Met in 2013 marked a major turning point — creatively, emotionally, spiritually. It started what, in retrospect, I might term my own inner revolution (and evolution), still unfolding in leaps and bounds, and will always occupy a deeply personal place where art and life meet, though five years on, I still find myself swimming in the oceans of questions it inspires.

The role of offspring, the meaning of a missing “shadow,” the length and intensity of questing for one, and, as ever, the role family plays in that quest — these questions are all very much underlined in Guth’s smart and surprisingly resonant production. I write “surprisingly” because, while I enjoy much of the so-called “Regie” style of direction, it doesn’t always move me emotionally, though I recognize emotions don’t always have to come into play in order to have a good night at the opera. His production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Salzburg in 2006) had some interesting ideas to be sure, but left me cold, something I felt strange about considering the warmth of Mozart’s score. Barrie Kosky’s very unique take on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (premiered at Bayreuth last year) was hailed by many for its inventiveness, yet others vowed after seeing it that they would never again return to the annual Wagner festival. So while some deeply love Regie and think it is vital in moving opera forwards, others are convinced it is destroying the sense of wonder and fantasy that is part and parcel of opera.

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Paul Lorenger (Black Gazelle/Keikobad) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Die Frau ohne Schatten as realized here challenges the latter view entirely; it is very full of wonder, very much inspired by fairytales, and very beautiful to look at. But as I wrote earlier, that opulence is not for its own hollow sake; it isn’t simply pleasing costumes and sets. The design here serves a wider purpose, and in the world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, it is to underline the deep divides between the archetypal figures of men and women, and the healing, regenerative power of love, a love that may or may not manifest itself (in the form of physical offspring) but is experienced within one’s self, and through another second, separate self. Recognizing and accepting the division of a second self, and working toward unity (and it is work, as the opera emphasizes) is a worthy endeavor, though it comes with great risk. Our hearts might freeze in the process (or turn to stone); we might use these roads of discovery for nefarious and selfish ends; we may never be entirely free of the shaping our parents gave us. As Guth notes in the program, Keikobad (the Empress’s father) “clings to his only child — through a prison of determination — and the child does not manage to look behind the mask of power or tear it down to recognize her own emotions.”

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Sarah Grether (White Gazelle), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Michaela Schuster (The Nurse). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Equally, the role of the Nurse here is given extra prominence, opening up experiences, to paraphrase Guth’s notes, which the Empress could never reach alone, and “in this way, the nurse gives her her shadow. (She) is a catalyst, a primal form of dynamic energy, beyond all moral standards.” Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s vivacious performance as The Nurse was a highly charismatic portrait of ever-tightening control; while the character is certainly fascinating (and is, in my view, given rather the short end of the stick in the end), her portrayal here doesn’t attempt to gloss over the questionable power dynamics between her and the opera’s other two principle female players. Guth frequently places her standing over, above, or at the edges of a scene, arms folded, chin up, hovering, a silent dance of control and manipulation; not for nothing does she sport black wings to match the coterie of similarly-winged, top-hat-wearing gents who wield power in mysterious if highly felt ways.

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Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (The Emperor). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Schuster’s Nurse, Camilla Nylund’s Empress, and Elena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife, created a powerful holy trinity that was implied via creative direction and design choices, noticeably through the contrasting use of textures: rock, glass, wood; bone, fur, skin. There are many seen and unseen forces within the realm of human relating, as Guth points out, and many of them involve an experience of the sensual which is central to an experiencing the spiritual (and vice-versa). The two here go hand-in-hand, as they should, something clearly reflected in Strauss’s luscious score, with luxurious writing for strings, percussion, and what I call low-b(l)ow sounds (basses, horns). Baritone Michael Volle, as Barak, and tenor Simon O’Neill, as the Emperor, both represent flip sides of a similar spirit (and a similar physicality certainly helps drive this point home), an archetypal male presence torn in two, silent yet mute, inert yet active. Again, Guth’s staging emphasized the multifaceted layers of intimate relations, and the quest to find, form, and notably evolve an identity within a traditional framework that frequently demands the subsuming of individual needs. The curved set housing Barak and his Wife in separate pseudo-cells at one point was a simple, powerful image, deeply symbolic and highly memorable, like so many of the moments in this multilayered production. Toward the end of the opera, the Empress proclaims that “the love is in me, and it is enough,” before being surrounded by tiny gazelles, symbols of her own self as realized in the way in which she and her husband first met: she was the delicate creature he hunted, but who became trapped himself in a web of spindly uxoriousness, a web whose holes grew bigger with the absence of a perceived symbol of love (perhaps the ultimate symbol), children.

Guth’s placing the opera within the realm of dreams (and thus the subconscious) forces one to consider not only not only the holes in own lives but the shadows that occupy them. Might we turn to stone without recognizing, nay, embracing them? The questions are in us, as Guth reminds in this production, and they are enough.

Event: Come See Me Talk Opera In Toronto March 15th

L'elisir Met Opera

Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino and Pretty Yende as Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.”
Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera

Longtime readers of mine will know I was raised on a steady diet of Italian opera. Alongside Puccini, Bellini, and the household favorite, Giuseppe Verdi (whose dwellings I visited last fall, an account of which you can discover in an upcoming issue of Opera Canada magazine), there was also the music of Donizetti. What to say about the man who wrote one of the most famous bel canto works in history, one based not on any Mediterranean story but on a novel by Scotsman Walter Scott? While Lucia di Lammermoor was, alongside La boheme, Norma, and Rigoletto, one of the mainstays of my youth, it wasn’t the Donizetti work I immediately responded to; that honor belonged, rather, to L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), a sitcom-like comedy brimming with warmth and humanity.

The opera, written hastily over a six-week period and premiered in Milan in 1832, is one of the popular and beloved of works in the opera world. Some very famous singers have been performed in it, including Nicolai Gedda, Tito Gobbi, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Roberto Alagna, Rolando Villazon … the list goes on. The opera offers an array of vocal fireworks which are deceptive for their elegant, hummable simplicity. Luciano Pavarotti is widely known (and rightly loved) for his sparkling performance of Nemorino, the hapless, lovelorn male lead; I was fortunate enough to see him sing it live (along with another great Italian singer, Enzo Dara, who sang the role of the potion-peddlar, Dr. Dulcamara). The venerable tenor seemed lit from within in the role, and it’s no wonder; he confessed in interviews that his favorite stage role was, in fact, Nemorino, the role he felt closest to, out of everything he’d done. As well as having one of the most famous arias in all of opera, Nemorino is brimming with neither intellectualism or thoughtful reflection (or even that much witty repartee, unless he’s dead drunk on the potion Dulcamara gave him), but, rather, steadfastly tied to a beautiful, earnest position full of love and longing. Nemorino loves Adina, the popular girl, who doesn’t give him (initially) the time of day; it’s a familiar story, a simple story, and one that, when couched in such splendid music, makes for a great introduction to the art form.

Polenzani Nemorino

Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera

And so it is that I’ll be hosting a special Cineplex event featuring the opera this coming Thursday (15 March) in Toronto, a Live in HD re-broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore, featuring tenor Matthew Polenzani and soprano Pretty Yende (both of whom I saw last season in various Met productions) in the lead roles. I was recently part of a panel on Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010 with broadcaster Richard Crouse discussing this, and mentioned Pavarotti, melodic music, and how I got into opera — but really, it’s much more fun to come see — and hear! — for yourself. Details on the screening are here — and you can win tickets here. I may or may not wear my crown (likely not), but I would love to see and meet (and chat with!) opera lovers old and new. Will it change your mind about opera? Maybe. Will you love the music? I would bet the response, post-broadcast, will be a resounding “si” — hopefully see you there!

Christmas Love

There was once a time when Christmas was a very big deal in my life. Christmas Eve was a swirl of hot chocolate, cartoons, and peeks under the tree; the day itself was filled with a bevy of boxes, shiny ribbons, stockings filled to the brim.

My mother would always laugh and say I was the last kid to get up on Christmas morning; sleeping in felt like another gift, and I wanted to indulge. One year my mother got sick of cooking, so she took six-year-old me down to one of her favorite old hang-outs, the Royal York Hotel. Me, in a long red velvet gown, and my mother, in a fancy, flouncy dress, enjoyed several courses, as I took in the spectacle of the room, the fancily-attired waiters marching through before dinner started with a succession of Christmas delicacies carefully laid out on silver platters.  Later, she would drive through the city, and we’d look at the festive lights and decorations; I’d be asleep by the time we got home, and would be carried into the house, changed into fuzzy pajamas, and tucked into bed. Boxing Day (and many days thereafter) were filled with play.

As both my mother and I grew older, our gift exchanges became decadent, dare I say exorbitant. I still remember her, one Christmas morning about a decade ago, sitting on a cream-color sofa near the tree and looking beautiful in a red satin dress, exclaiming, not in judgment but in simple awe, “We are very extravagant!” I think something about the sheer volume shocked her, having come from such a meagre life as a youngster, when Christmas meant little more than an orange and an apple. 
Not long after this, we mutually decided to end gift exchanges; her, sensing my writing didn’t really pay that well, and being exhausted with the entire shopping/wrapping process. Also, we both acknowledged, gift-giving tended to happen throughout the year anyway — I’d go grocery shopping, to posh grocers, picking up special, lovely delicacies and cooking them up — sometimes (frequently), it was for no occasion at all, but for the simple pleasure of sharing, preparing, and enjoying them with someone I loved. It was also gratifying seeing my rapidly-shrinking mother eat. One of my most cherished memories of this year is grilling sea scallops for her; I shall always cherish that look of love and gratitude she gave me, more than once, as she carefully carved and them ravenously devoured them. That enjoyment, to me, is worth more than anything you could buy in a store.

Value comes in many forms, of course. Having dear friends coming over through the holidays this year, people close to both of mother and me, is a gift in and of itself. I thought it would be fitting (and fun) to look back at old times. Going through the many old photo albums stored in my basement has forced me to admit it something I’ve been avoiding the last month or so: the holidays hurt. I’ve been keeping myself busy with writing, baking, all manner of household thing, but the shock of my mother’s absence this year is sharp, unrelenting, brutal. Beyond going to the Royal York, and, more recently, my cooking up a beautiful Christmas dinner for us, we didn’t have many traditions. That doesn’t mean her presence in and around the house — as I baked, wrapped presents, drove her to friends’ for merry deliveries — isn’t sorely missed. She’d always laugh whenever I’d put on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

“You’re a big kid at heart!” she’d say. True, I’d admit. I have to be; I never had any of my own.

Other memories of her at this festive time of year are dim, though I have some lovely photos to remind me of the wonder of childhood; a veritable smell of gingerbread and vanilla wafts off them, dreams of sugar plums and plush red dresses and the smooth threads of a Barbie’s hair. My world was cozy, cradling, perfect. Small snippets of that feeling came through in subsequent years; though I don’t have any photos from last year’s Christmas, I distinctly remember the absolute thrill I felt at seeing her take a second helping of turkey, exclaiming, “your chestnut stuffing is sooooo good!” 

An overpowering love pervades everything; that is what I see and what I feel when I think of Christmases past. The tidal-wave-power of that love is one I’m not sure I’ll experience again; I chose not to have my own children a long time ago, and I am really not the maternal sort (something my mother also acknowledged), though I admit it’s been very joyful to see updates of others’ families on social media.  “Christmas is for kids,” my mother dryly observed over the last few years. I couldn’t agree more. So it’s nice to experience the joy of the holidays vicariously, through the many hilarious/touching/smart updates I’ve seen on my Facebook feed; those photos and updates have brought many much-needed smiles and even laughter. To those who’ve provided such therapy: thank you.  

So, as 2016 rapidly approaches, the only way to move forwards — now, at the holidays, and after them, too — is to allow the memory of my mother’s love to power me forwards, through the scary melanoma stuff, through the work stuff, through the frequently lonely days and weeks that characterize so much of my life now. It also means remembering the kid who wants to play, and making room for that in my new normal; maybe that’s the best way to honor my mother, and the best way to keep the Christmas spirit alive, year round.

Try A Little Tenderness

Full cast of King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair 

King Lear is one of my favorite plays. The 1606 work examines ideas of family, responsibility, motivation, and obligation in a cutting way few other theatrical works do. The premise is basic: Lear, wanting to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, asks them to express their love. Goneril and Regan go over-the-top in their declamations, while the youngest, Cordelia, says she loves him “according to my bond, no more, nor less.” The former are rewarded for their proclamations; the latter, banished for her honesty. Therein ensues a monumental family tragedy, one that incorporates another family’s drama (a nasty one involving two sons, each from different mothers), and a dance of damaged children and hurting parents that spirals toward an inevitably tragic conclusion.

In light of my mother’s passing earlier this year, I wasn’t sure that seeing Lear live wouldn’t be a slightly painful ordeal. The dramas, the breakdowns, the unseemly machinations and manipulations, the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia happening too late and being all too brief – Shakespeare’s great work was difficult for me to contemplate watching live. And yet something pulled me in the direction of Theatre Passe Muraille when I heard about the Watershed Shakespeare Festival Collective production

Ostensibly set in Upper Canada in 1837, director Rod Carley uses the theatre’s intimate surroundings to incredible effect, with a pared-down cast, simple set design (by Frank Vona), dramatic lighting (by John Batchelor) and sound effects (by Brian Nettlefold), creating a deeply moving portrait of a family in crisis. The tensions between the characters are brought to vivid life via stellar ensemble work, particularly the growing animosity between sisters Goneril (Maureen Cassidy) and Regan (Jennifer Ritchie), and their overall disgust with younger sister Cordelia (an endearingly earnest Kelsey Ruhl).  Joshua Bainbridge, who plays Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester (a fantastically earthy Charlie Tomlinson), offers a deeply fascinating portrait of deceit, using a combination of easy joviality and wide-eyed “integrity” to convince his father that legitimate son Edgar (Ethan Chapman) is up to no good. Hume Baugh is a bitingly angry Fool, frustrated as much with his master as with his own failing health (Carley’s production simply, powerfully answers the lingering question of what happens to the Fool), and nicely contrasts with Ethan Chapman’s sparky take on Edgar’s “Poor Tom” disguise.

David Fox as King Lear and Hume Baugh as the Fool. Photo by Anthony Leclair

The chemistry between the cast is indeed electric, a feeling intensified by the close quarters of the performance space itself; when Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Jeff Miller), goes to forcibly remove Gloucester’s eyes, one winces more than usual — the players are only mere feet away, after all, and though there is no blood or gore, there is a visceral sense to the proceedings made all the more keen because of the immediacy of the players, their words, their conviction to the text and to the world director Carley has placed them in. This is a King Lear that feels very real, its family dramas and power plays disquietingly close, both literally and figuratively.

What powers much of this intimacy, outside of the space itself, is the central performance of David Fox, an actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of school teacher Clive Pettibone on the television series Road to Avonlea. His portrayal of Lear, by turns spitting orders and then stumbling over words, standing over an intransigent Earl of Kent (Tim Nicholson) and then doddering barefoot along wearing a crown of branches later, is shattering. Fox, who is 74 years old, uses his own gangly physicality to complete advantage, standing imperiously at the start of the work, and fumbling in a wheelchair by its end. He plumbs the depths of Lear’s failing health, mentally and physically, and bases much of the character’s outrage on a very real and palpable sense of damaged pride.

David Fox as King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair

This is, as many with aging parents will know, a very big thing with the elderly. Dealing with pride amidst failing health is no small matter. There was something so utterly familiar about the mix of vulnerability, confusion, shame, and theatrical show of pride in Fox’s performance of the old King, that more than once I found myself gritting teeth to control tears. A companion who joined me at the performance said something at the intermission about the ungrateful daughters needing to “humour” Lear, but, as I watched the second half, with each appearance of Lear revealing more and more of his fragility, all I could think was, tenderness is key. It is everything in dealing with a failing parent. Tenderness is what Cordelia offers, in abundance; the expression on Ruhl’s face as she interacts with Fox brims with this very quality, even as her character must swallow the deep grief at seeing his deterioration. We remember how our parents used to be, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to reconcile that with the small, sickly person before us; no matter how large a parent might’ve loomed in our lives, the fact they shrink, literally and figuratively, bowed before age and infirmity, is heartbreaking. This is what Cordelia deals with when she sees her father again, after he’s been rejected by his elder daughters and has wandered the heath in a storm. Time has sped up, only to be stopped, mercifully, in order for the two to beautifully, poetically reconcile. Seeing who he is, past the physical, and embracing it, as opposed to rejecting it, manipulating it, making a play based on personal want, is what makes Cordelia such a unique and moving figure.

Tenderness is the slow, gentle engine that allows great if quiet love to make itself known. It means putting our own ego wants — what we think the parent should be saying or doing or believing or choosing — aside. Tenderness only asks for and manifests in loving presence, little more. Anyone who’s experienced the deterioration of a parent, whether through illness or age (or both), will tell you it isn’t the easiest thing in the world, not by a longshot; one has to have Herculean levels of patience and fortitude, and, being only human, none of us can manage to be saintly 100% of the time. And when that parent has a moment of self-awareness, and asks for your forgiveness, as Lear does with Cordelia, there is really little to be said or done, but to hold hands, gently, and to simply be there, tenderly, as they make their way into another realm. King Lear reminded me of the importance of tenderness, earlier this year, and now, and moving forwards. All hail, King Tenderness.

No Happy Endings

Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Happy endings don’t always happen; happy endings can’t always happen. Happy endings shouldn’t always happen.

These thoughts ran through my mind driving home Thursday evening after seeing Opera Atelier’s sumptuous Armide, directed by co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski. A tragic love story with great outfits and delicate court dancing, the 1686 Lully work, while highly mannered and fantastical, has many rich opportunities for deep emotion and gripping drama. As the Globe and Mail’s Robert Harris writes, Baroque opera “was and is a fascinating amalgam of ballet, drama, comedy, luscious costumes, extravagant sets and an overall dedication to theatrical opulence.” Opera Atelier, dedicated to preserving the art and integrity of the form, lovingly caters to each and every element with scintillating detail.

Set during the First Crusade, Armide (Peggy Kriha Dye), a powerful Muslim warrior-priestess partially modelled on Homer’s Circe, traps Renaud (Colin Ainsworth), a Christian knight; she knows she should kill him, but finds she can’t because she’s developed feelings. So she casts a spell that makes him love her back (and one that would make it much easier to murder him, since she recognizes her equal in a combative sense) — but she remains haunted by the fact Renaud’s love isn’t real, and she moves between wallowing in feelings, and swallowing them. Though she calls on Hatred (Daniel Belcher) to assist her in erasing her feelings, it doesn’t work. Before she can return to her beloved, two of Renaud’s soldiers, Chevalier Danois (Aaron Ferguson) and Chevalier Ubalde (Olivier LaQuerre) appear and break Armide’s spell. Renaud prepares to leave, but not before Armide returns and begs him to stay or take her with him; he refuses and departs, and Armide is left alone.

Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide and Colin Ainsworth as Renaud. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

There is a recognizable Orientalism at work, with Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault casting their sights on the world of the near East and its perceived exoticism. It’s of particular interest that the opera is based on a tale contained within 16th century writer Torquato Tasso’s poem La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered); I recently saw another (shorter) opera by Monteverdi based on the same work, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda) at the Canadian Opera Company, and Orientalist elements aside, in that work, as well as with Armide, there’s a horrible cloud of despair hanging above the would-be lovers. The idea of different cultures coming together awkwardly, clashing, melding, and clashing again runs like a fine (if hard) gold thread throughout Lully’s work; it’s as if the realities of the outer world — outside of magic and other fantastical situations — are too difficult to be surmounted. That’s awfully gloomy, but somehow, sadly precise, because it’s a tacit acknowledgement of the harsh geopolitical situations that prevent so much true understanding between cultures, not to mention the deep sociocultural chasms that exist between men and women. Though Tasso’s work ends with its dubious heroines converting to Christianity (surely a mark of the Europe in which it was written, one that perhaps hasn’t changed much), it’s interesting Quinault felt the need to end the opera where he did, with Renaud’s departure and Armide’s devastation.

Peggy Kriha Dye (Armide) and Tyler Gledhill (Love). Photo by Bruce Zinger.

So of course, the soldier-sorceress has no happy ending. Why would she? How could she? Not only would Tasso’s 16th century never allow it, but a picture-perfect ending would be too saccharine, and frankly disingenuous to the overall sour tone of the piece. Sure, there is the comedic relief of the soldiers (Ferguson and LaQuerre make an immensely likeable pair onstage, channeling Laurel-and-Hardy-style buddy humor) and the lovely dancing of the Atelier Ballet (choreographed by co-Artistic Director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg); there is also the winged presence of Love (Tyler Gledhill), a stretching, leaping, embracing figure who silently entreats the titular magician to follow a softer path.

But, ultimately, as the final notes sound and designer Gerard Gauci’s set reveals hotly-colored flames surrounding a solo Armide, we know the butter-soft visuals and languid scenes of romance that have gone before are a ruse; Lully’s music has darkness in buckets, and it’s the perfect complement to Philippe Quinault’s libretto and Tasso’s wrenching poem. More cynical (or perhaps over-romantic) types would argue the ending can’t be good: Armide is alone and devastated, and she has to live with a love that can never be satisfied or consummated. But there’s a strange freedom in that isolation. Keeping her power (limited as it may be) and sense of independence within the borders of her homeland, close to family and trusted peers feels like a better (less exciting, probably more adult) option than traveling to another country and a culture that would undoubtedly be hostile toward and ultimately reject her, or keeping her lover in a land where he might experience the same treatment.

Colin Ainsworth (Renaud) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Armide). Photo by Bruce Zinger

What’s more, keeping Renaud in a haze of love isn’t love at all — it’s manipulation, a nasty form of control, domination, and possessiveness, behavior that surely drives love (the real kind) away very quickly. Besides, there’s something strangely satisfying about the woman not getting the man at the end and living happily ever after, and about the disruption to the cliched princess fairytale that too often dominates cultural depictions around women and love.

Armide still lives in love at the end, just not with a love that is incarnated within the physical form of Renaud. The ending strips away the bullshit romance aspects of the story to reveal something far more interesting and human: vulnerability. That quality is precisely what powers this production, and indeed, so much great art. Staring at the abyss and letting the world see our raw, naked, true selves is frightening — even moreso when we have to do it alone. But do it we must. The question is, will we move forwards, vulnerable and exposed, in love, or in hate?

Yesterme. Yesteryou. Yesterday.

It was somewhere between coffee and cleaning up from a dinner party on Saturday night that I learned the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial. I stood gawping and silent, coffee and kahlua still dancing on the palate, staring at the multiple Twitter streams telling me: Not Guilty.

There followed a restless, late night, one spent exchanging ideas across social media networks, listening to old soul songs, reading various articles, thinking about America and its founding ideals, about youth,  about justice, about relationships near and far, about differing perceptions across different lives, in different places and in different circumstances. About the notion of “different-ness” itself.

The incident sent me back in a time machine somehow, to recall a childhood friend I hadn’t thought about in many, many years. Tanya and her family moved to my old neighborhood in suburban Toronto when I was in seventh grade. It was a strange time, of shifting hormones, changing tastes, swirling, sometimes intensely passionate feelings; my once-strong friendships were disintegrating, changing faster than my hairstyles.

My twelve-year-old self was experimenting with new tastes in music, in clothing, in food, in books, in ways of seeing and experiencing the world; Tanya seemed to show up at the exactly right time, helping me navigate through the terrible trauma of first periods, the weirdness of my single mother dating, the importance of forging notes for gym class (we were possibly the only non-sporty types in the whole school and hated the athletic mean girls), and the joys of hitting up the local record shop to scope out the latest dance records. I was introduced to Janet Jackson’s music through Tanya, and we’d spend hours dancing in my basement to “Nasty” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” as well as hits by both Michael Jackson and Duran Duran. It was refreshing to find a (female) friend who never put the two in competing camps, as so many around me already had. (Either you liked MJ or you liked DD; there was no in-between, which, to me, seemed absurd.) I introduced Tanya to the wonders of the Eurythmics. We’d go to the cinema Friday nights and laugh loud and hard, at whatever absurdity we’d paid our $7 for; sometimes people would try to shush us and throw dirty looks. Our response was to throw popcorn and quickly duck down, giggling.


Janet Jackson – Nasty by trashfan

We didn’t know about history, or what we did know, we barely cared about or paid much attention to. We were young girls being… well, young girls, whispering, giggling, sharing, crying, being loud and obnoxious one minute, weepy and dramatic the next. When I visited Tanya’s house, I just saw people getting along with life, their jobs, their kids, their responsibilities. Tanya’s parents seemed tired, and her father was older than I expected, but they were friendly and very welcoming, delighted their rambunctious daughter had found an ally in a quiet, bookish, then-shy piano-playing local girl, and perhaps pleased at my mother’s church-going habits. Her mother’s smile as my eyes bugged out trying jerk chicken for the first time, her younger brother excitedly dancing with us in the basement and acting out the scenes from the “Thriller” music video … it was the mid-80s, and suburban Canada felt about as far away from the racial boiling-pot of America as you could possibly get.

Very often Tanya and I would relate the way many young women do, talking about the strange weirdness of our changing bodies and the absolute, utter mystery of male bodies. Tanya used to do a hilariously vulgar sort of pelvic thrust walk, making a funny wakka-wakka-sound in her throat – I can’t remember why, or the circumstances for such a creation -but I do remember howling with laughter. Tanya was, to me, a very cool girl, with her perfectly filed, long fingernails, Chuck Taylor sneakers, light-heartedness with the whole mysterious s-e-x thing, and, of course, a very chic-casual purple cheerleader-style jacket. For all that, I never thought she was any different than me; it never occurred that she was a black girl from California with a very different set of life experiences to my own -hailing from a large family with many siblings, her parents having recently moved to Canada and settled in what was then a very Wonder Bread neighborhood. She was sometimes laughed at in the schoolyard, with more than a few sporty, slim girls rolled their eyes at her in gym class (when we went), what with her hole-speckled socks, baggy shirts, and dimpled knees. Again, I never noticed those things, and she was just my cool, funny friend. I remember how I felt when we were together, whether in-person or on the phone.

It was with more than a bit of surprise that I thought of Tanya when Rachel Jeantel was interviewed recently. Her awkwardness, her self-consciousness, her mannerliness, her sparkling, shy youth… Tanya’s face came flashing into my mind, particularly the moments when my friend used to interact with my mother or my mum’s church-going friends. There was, in retrospect, a weird over-compensating going on that I, in my fuzzy-cotton-shielded-from-everything upbringing, hadn’t noticed as a youngster. As Laura Beck wrote on Jezebel, “I don’t know how you watch this and see anything but an unfiltered, genuine teenager. One who suffered  the tragic loss of a friend she spent hours and hours on the phone with each day.” Maybe that’s what set me off to write this blog post, madly typing out rough thoughts in the middle of another restless night recently. There is a truly real, touching core of deeply-felt friendship so extant in Jeantel’s reminiscences, it’s almost painful to watch. You feel like you’re intruding on the lives of two teenagers who are super-tight with each other -literally to the point of death.

I’m not sure why, or how, but Tanya and I stopped talking -a petulant tween fight, as I recall -and soon after she moved away. I ran into her a little while after that at the local mall, when she was visiting; Tanya had moved back to California, her parents had separated, she was living with her mother and siblings. She was, somehow, such a grown-up at sixteen. I often wonder where she is now. Tanya would be about the same age as me, and looking at the date of Trayvon Martin’s birth – 1995 -I wonder if she chose to have children. What would she tell them? What might be be telling them now? Can she – can we -possibly return to that beautiful place in childhood, of laughter and love and shared secrets and innocence? Perhaps Christy Moore says it best:

I want to meet you where you are
I don’t need you to surrender
There is no feeling so alone
As when the one you’re hurting is your own. 


(Bottom photo: detail of Kenny Scharf mural, 2011; both top & bottom photos from my Flickr photostream)

Dear Katherine

Two things struck me looking through The Tattoo Chronicles, by famed tattoo artist Kat Von D (with Sandra Bark): first, this girl can draw, and second, she’s so much a twenty-something woman of the 21st century.

The first observation might seem a bit idiotic at the outset; after all, Kat rose to fame based on the wildly popular television series LA Ink, chronicling her life in the City of Angels, inking up the not-so-rich and infamous. But she’s also a genuinely good artist in her own right.

I’ve been returning to drawing in a big way the last little while, and while it’s rewarding, it’s also incredibly hard, time-consuming, and frustrating. Kat has an incredible faculty to be able to draw both what’s in front of her as well as from her considerable imagination. She shares drawings, stories, and photographs in this gorgeous red hardcover book; its pages are designed like a scrapbook, with snatches of tattoo sketches (and the finished work), highly stylized photographs, letters, and doodles. It’s a fascinating chronicle of memories and experiences, and adheres closely to Kat’s high-wire act of balancing relenteless self-promotion with genuine twin passions for art and human connection.

The front cover, with Kat hugging a diary to her chest, sleeve-tattooed arms enfolded around her tiny frame, angular face, black hair, leather pants and super-high red sparkly shoes tells you that while she isn’t exactly the girl next door, she’s not the trampy, vampy hellraiser she might like to make her out as, either. This bears out within the pages of The Tattoo Chronicles (Harper Collins), particularly the more personal bits detailing Kat’s up-and-down roller coaster of a relationship with rock and roll bad boy, former Motley Crue bassist Nicki Sixx. The age difference between she and her paramour -Sixx’s 50th birthday party is chronicled, along with Kat’s 27th (with much frustration she tosses off a “so-the-hell-what?” at the age discrepancy at one point, the flippancy of the statement belying its worried underpinnings) -as well as the close relationship she shares with many women, including her sister Karoline, and Johnette Napolitano, who wrote the book’s compelling foreword.

The Concrete Blonde singer’s line that “I just do what I do and happen to be a woman” struck me, because so many of the artists I admire carry the exact same credo, and it’s one, I think, that applies equally to Kat, who has blazed a trail for women who tattoo, who love it, or are fascinated by its culture.

But that accomplishment doesn’t erase vulnerability or, indeed, humanity. For all her fetching style and tough-lady attitude, Kat very much comes off as an insecure, anxiety-prone twenty-something in the throes of forming identities amidst a barrage of external forces -ones that might a bit distant for some of us (TV shows, books, a Sephora make-up line) but nonetheless fascinating, and even familiar. Who can’t relate to the stress of being far away from a loved one? fights? a breakup? panic over losing your sense of self that makes you you? Her Alpine-esque ups and downs with Sixx are shared with searing honesty. In one entry, dated July 7th, 2008, 4:42am, she writes:

There’s no ignoring the physical distance between Nikki and I today -and it’s
only been a day -God, I miss him -can’t sleep. How am I gonna get through the
next two months? More importantly, how the hell did I become “that” girl? I feel
so damn clingy -needy almost … UGH. We start filming in the morning.

Never for a moment does Kat lose sight of the ultimate prize: further fame and notoriety. Her single-minded approach can be cloying at times, but it also gives way to some truly moving passages. Kat’s write-up about Glory Mkini, who comes to her for a tattoo that both pays homage to her home (Mkini is Tanzanian) and covers up a scar, is deeply moving. The personalities that dominate the book (along with their accompanying photographs) provide a fascinating hodge podge of humanity in all its confusing, contradictory, inked-up glory. And it’s in these passages, in Kat’s detailing her exchanges with these people and their journeys, that The Tattoo Chronicles really shines.

As to her own personal bits, Kat wallows the way any lovelorn, self-obsessed twenty-something might. It’s annoying at times, but it’s also related to an overall me-me-me-broadcast that defines so much Western cultural exchange within a young-celebrity context in the 21st century. Kat’s entries occasionally read like Facebook status updates -not a bad thing, but hardly introspective. We don’t get a true sense of why a veteran like Johnette Napolitano is her friend, and we get naive howlers like her relating her own relatively-short period of sobriety with Nikki’s decades-long process. They aren’t the same, Kat. They really, really aren’t. Stop comparing. Stop always bringing *you* in.

But that sense of ballsy narcissism, of take-on-the-world-ness, of shrieking arrogance-meets-naivete, is really the charm of it. Just when you think you could never have anything in common with someone like Kat Von D… the “someone like” part vanishes, and, past the shoes, the makeup, the spiffy clothing, the perfect lighting, the plastic surgery, and oodles of rock and roll/celeb connections, there’s this… lonely, wildly insecure, overwhelmed, for-all-her-success-hugely-naive, messed-up person… who happens to be hugely talented (and, um, rich), very curious about people, and unafraid to speak her mind. There’s something heartening about seeing someone so completely, unapologetically like the rest of us non-gothy-glam schlubs… make it, while bleeding all over everyone and not trying to be cutesy about it, but hauling out the mops and shouting for a TV camera. Kat feels so appropriate for here and now, and her latest book is proof of that.

The Tattoo Chronicles is a book that inspires curiosity, thought, and guffaws for sure -but within it is the unquenchable instinct to connect, cherish and accept everyone within this crazy little globe, no matter how mnch -or little -they may have lived, or how much they have to show for it, physically and otherwise. Everyone has a story. It’s nice to see them so creatively chronicled.

Singular

“You go into a bit of a vortex and then you hear the words, ‘Jeff Bridges‘… “

That’s Colin Firth talking about what goes through his mind this awards season.

The British actor didn’t have to worry about Bridges tonight, though; he won Best Actor at the BAFTA Awards for his stunning performance in A Single Man.

I saw Tom Ford‘s film (based on a work by Christopher Isherwood) just this afternoon, and I am not sure I can properly articulate its beauty in any meaningful way. The film revolves around George Falconer, a professor in 1962 Los Angeles, who has recently lost his partner. Ford features several long, meditative shots of Firth, whether he’s looking for something for breakfast, sitting in his car, sorting through his bank box, or remembering his times spent with Jim (Matthew Goode). George’s life is both bereft of life and hefty with love, as his interactions with his lifelong friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) and new friend Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) demonstrate. With keen use of colour, a gorgeous sense of framing, and a flair for considered shading, Ford nicely balances the silence and the symphony, both literal and figurative. It’s an immense achievement that silently yet masterfully articulates the life of one man in quietly desperate circumstances.

Along with being a play on ideas of the single and solitary, the film is a meditation on aging. I was especially moved by the lingering close-ups of Firth’s expressive, natural face. No smooth-faced, muscled-up, botoxed Hollywood star, one could see the rough bumps and expression lines a late forty-something man has, and has righteously earned. In no way do those wrinkles detract from Firth’s physical attributes; in fact, they add to his attractiveness. In other words, never mind the Darcys -here’s the real thing. A Single Man gives us an honest portrait of an outsider -talented, articulate, even playful -who feels rejected by a world that deems him undesirable and considers his contributions worthless. This is deeply related to the speech George delivers on fear to a classroom full of pie-eyed students. The relationship between fear and love is profound in any arena, and Ford nicely, effectively explores this connection, using, again, the palette of Firth’s incredible face. Such an achievement is rendered with the deftest of strokes, and the most subtle arrangement of light, colour, shape and shadow balancing with the close, hard facial shots. It’s not hard to identify Ford’s design background here, but his translation of it into a cinematic expression is nothing short of astonishing for its emotional resonance.

Walking amidst a street fair after the film, I was still haunted by the director’s beautiful vision, the actor’s aged face, the silence, the noise, the light and the shadows. Questions around youth, age, beauty, and love, and one’s perceived “worthiness” of each whispered about like midnight waves lapping at cold toes. Some things are, perhaps, best left unanswered, but the shining faces on the street -of young and old alike -enjoying the sunny day, and the simple joy of living, was a fitting counterpart, and a beautiful reminder of the very things Isherwood wrote of. Viva love. Viva life.

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