Tag: men

Personal Essay: “You’re Being Too Sensitive”

mask woman dress painting identity secret hidden expression

Mihail Teisanu, “Woman Wearing A Mask”, 1919. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest.  Photo: mine. Please to not reproduce without permission.

Earlier this week Associated Press released a year-end summation of sorts relating to the story they broke earlier this year around allegations of sexual misconduct by Placido Domingo. Reading it, I found myself sad but also frustrated – it’s depressing to see so much consistent pushback against the women who spoke out, and equally sad (if unsurprising) to note the consistent attempts to discredit them. Such actions highlight the many social and cultural divisions that must be overcome if we, as an industry are to evolve. 

I wrote in a recent post about walls, and how, despite a lot of big talk on the theoretical beauty of their vanishing, the reality is that we tend to like them – what they keep in but also what they perceivably keep out. Nowhere is this more true than in the chasms that have been revealed within the classical world related to the #MeToo movement. The issue is, to my mind, larger than whether or not these women should have spoken out (though I think it’s good they did); more broadly, it points to attitudes held by many in and around the industry which dictates that women and men are “a certain way”. There’s a lot of gender-slotting into little boxes of behaviour, ones that adhere to very old-fashioned and outdated clichés. These clichés around what’s “normal” for a gender feed into a reality relating directly to power, one that can hire and fire, favor and dismiss. Some may well argue (and have, vociferously) that women should use their so-called “feminine wiles” in an industry that is so tough to break into. Why shouldn’t a woman use the gifts God gave her? Aren’t all men interested in “that sort of thing” from a woman? Such comments bring to mind an exchange I noted on social media earlier this year, in which, over the course of a lengthy thread relating to the Domingo case, one individual reiterated the belief that young women today are “too sensitive” and they should “toughen up” and “in my day we weren’t so bothered by flirtatious men.” This attitude is reflected in a quote soprano Laura Flanigan gave to AP, that “(t)he climate has always been ‘don’t tell and suck it up and deal with it.” 

sculpture silence finger mouth face no words secret meditation Preault figure human

Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, 19th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This past year I’ve frequently thought back to a memory from childhood, of a friend and I hiding in closets as tweens whenever a flirty male friend of my mother’s would visit; this man, married and with three children, would insist on kissing us at every visit. We made a kind of game of it, daring him to find us, as my mother emitted what I can only surmise now must have been vaguely embarrassed chuckles as she clattered away in the kitchen. We would mock-shriek when closet doors opened and there he would be, this man in a three-piece suit, grinning at us and then puckering up and leaning forward, as we would duck and attempt to run. Usually we weren’t successful and would have to endure cycles of his lips repeatedly on our faces and occasionally lips. We were taught to “endure” it (and that if we weren’t enjoying it, there must be something wrong with us), but in truth, neither my friend nor I found any of it fun or playful; we found this man exasperating, irritating, his attentions humiliating and annoying. We giggled in the darkness of the closet not out of good, spirits, but out of nervousness, not knowing what else, as young girls, we should do.

My mother, being pre-boomer, belonged to an era where women were indeed taught that such attentions were “normal male behaviour” and, as I grew older, I was told, in either word or gesture, that I should “use what God gave” me. My mother was part of a generation that proclaimed women should “toughen up” (especially when it came to male behaviour) and “not take everything so seriously” (I still remember her saying that, almost up to her death in 2015), and, should any hint of complaint be uttered, it was my fault for being “too sensitive.” If I had a dime for every time my mother accused me of this in the negative sense, I would indeed be wealthy. Hers was an attitude that would shape large swaths of my life, my choices, and my perceptions around power, and men, and what validation is and how it supposedly works. I wasn’t entirely surprised when, years later telling her about my own assault, I was met with a dismissive attitude and accusations that, having drank too much and worn a low-cut a dress, I had somehow “asked” for it. Every time I see a woman vehemently defending terrible male behaviour, I think of hiding in that closet, choosing that dress, my mother, and her words. 

Such moments from the past year, together with the AP round-up, also make me think back to a frank discussion I had with soprano Lisette Oropesa this past autumn. Much has been made about using so-called “womanly power” and how, in the classical world, this has and continues to be a key tool to getting ahead, and staying ahead. As Oropesa put it:

I’ve seen successful women behave and talk and dress and flirt a certain way and I think to myself, why? At this point, it shouldn’t be necessary… it’s such a cheap trick. It’s low-hanging fruit! Any gorgeous woman can use it to advantage – and how many women can have careers doing that? Sure it has power, but it’s *old* feminine power.

This attitude of, “if you got it, flaunt it” makes as many gigantic assumptions as its closest sibling, “she had a choice“; first of all, why should you? To quote the song, is that all there is? Secondly, what if one doesn’t have “it”? Through choice or not, what if the “it” simply isn’t there? In many senses the lack of a societally defined “it” makes a woman, no matter how talented, entirely invisible. In an ideal world, talent would win out (and sometimes it does, but not often), but to quote my post about walls, human foibles make such idealism incredibly difficult to manifest, let alone enact. Changing attitudes in the industry means changing the way classical is both thought of, and marketed,  and yes, run – which means changing the way both audiences and artists view a very specific list of things that require redefinition, starting squarely with what “it” is and why it should so matter in 2020 – or be booted out the proverbial door along with last century ideas. 

painting story bible man woman arm distance attempt vulnerable power imbalance art

Alessandro Varotari (called Il Padovanino), “Susannah and the Elders” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

A woman coming into an industry where she can expect to be objectified (and used) sexually is de rigueur for success, where that notion of utilitarianism as it relates to the interweaving threads of success, sex, power, and identity, has no actual power– or choice. To pretend otherwise is a very convenient illusion; what a wonderful trick of the prevailing powers, to have so many, young and old, mouthing such nonsense with such wide-eyed seriousness, for so long. Secondly, there is no notion of “two consenting adults” when the playing field is not level to begin with; who’s doing the hiring and firing? Who’s propagating a continuing (outdated) framework of what “it” is? Who’s making the decisions? Why? To quote Lisette Oropesa again, “There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!”” A woman fortunate enough to have “it” and using “it” within a world run by those holding on to their outmoded frames is not levelling the playing field, it’s bending over to make the world seem normal. To pretend otherwise is to engage in the most intense form of cognitive dissonance, and such a willful misperception would be amusing were it not so common.

Women who speak out against this system do not deserve to be branded as harpies, or to be called “over-sensitive.” They don’t deserve to be held up as examples of “typical American overreaction” or some “Westernized” anti-male brigade. If you hate the term “woke,” fine – use “evolution” in its place. Cultural difference is understandable but sharply contrasting ideas about the female experience reveals uncomfortable truths about which environments are willing to acknowledge alternative (and perhaps more equitable) realities, and which ones are fiercely determined to stay the same.

women concert noise gossip group gathering ladies painting

Aelbert Van Der Schoor, “The Concert” (detail), 17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The intransigent adherence to so-called “tradition” in this sense (“men are like this; women are like this”), even as modern presentations and productions are simultaneously applauded, reveals a sad if unsurprisingly comfortable hypocrisy that gives a strange new meaning to the term “Old World”; I would ask such audience members to apply their same spirit of opennness to women who don’t fit the so-called “traditional” moulds of desirability, and indeed, to women who are willing to stand up and say clearly, “I don’t like this system, it’s crap, can we please make a change?” They aren’t sensitive; they’re direct. I would ask women who can’t understand such directness to kindly not use the very same brush for others’ portraits as they might use for their own; everyone requires different shading, details, application, and focus. There is no one-size-fits-all in any world, classical or otherwise. Your experience is not their experience; your time is not their time; your voice is not their voice – nor should it be.

woman face painting, thoughtful contemplative grace expression

Hans Von Aachen, “The Three Graces” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

And so, as 2019 comes to a close, I want to believe there is a chance for evolution in the classical world. I want to believe there is a will to use ways and means heretofore unseen. I want to believe we can all do better. Whether or not we choose such an evolution is entirely up to us. We hate to admit loving our walls, and, more than that (and especially within the classical world), we hate to admit they exist at all. Let 2020 be the time we can at least see them, and if not take them down entirely, at least remove a few pieces here and there, to let the most strange, new, beautifully sensitive and wondrously strong flowers emerge.

Personal Essay: “She Had A Choice”

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum Berlin)

Today’s news about Placido Domingo was shocking to some and not to others. I spent much of the day pouring over various reactions, curious to take the temperature of the online classical world. What was and is most striking throughout various forums I read has been the divisive nature of the comments, sharply moving between “finally” and “bunch of lying opportunists.” Addressing this in writing offers a rumination on something I’ve not commented on very much publicly. I’m not one to shriek about anything on social media (those who know me know I do that enough in-person over anything I feel strongly about), but with news of one of the most famous living opera figures being accused of sexual harassment, the time feels nigh, and so.

I met Placido Domingo as a wide-eyed child who was pulled out of school to attend a record store one blustery Toronto afternoon. My mother smiled graciously when it came to be our turn. I only later understood the looks exchanged between the tenor and my starstruck (if very beautiful) mother. He told me to “study hard” and off we went. Years later my mother and I would watch Three Tenors concerts now and again, and after her passing, I got to see Domingo myself, in a concert version of Thais at the Salzburg Festival, and later in Macbeth at LA Opera. In any business the reality of transaction is part of overall functionality; scratch my back, I scratch yours. Within the arts world there exists, with equal if not greater presence, a spirit of what I’d call relationality, where the bonds of positive relationships power much of what is experienced within a live performance, in opera or in concert. Those relationships are, quite often, sacred things, creating webs-within-webs of connectivity between artists, administrators, musicians, designers, directors, managers, dramaturgs, répétiteurs, and the many, many others who help to make classical things happen. Transactionality, and more vitally, relationality, create a frequent blurring between art and life, a blur which often manifests itself in some of the most magical and unexpected ways, but within that world, there are barriers people (professionals, that is) know not to cross. Others – those in positions of power – step over the lines without a second thought; they know they can. Power affirms a feeling of impunity, entitles poor behaviour, highlights narcissism. When your norm is applause and adoration, you don’t care about blurring lines, because the rules don’t apply. This, of course, is where abuse happens.

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

Those who’ve been shrieking about opportunistic ingenues tend to point directly at Instagram as evidence of their claims, and while one might suspect any number of young artists would happily go to some effort to meet such powerful (and obviously useful) men, in this age of carefully curated selfies and meticulously groomed feeds, yes, sex sells, and always has; the classical world is not immune. (In working on a story about Instagram and opera last year, one friend commented that the platform has become “one giant competition to see which ingenue can pout the hardest –never mind the singing.”) It could be reasonably said that young women in the arts are more empowered than ever when it comes to presenting the image they wish the world to see; there are others who claim they’ve experienced instances of ingenues coming on to those in power (directors, conductors, major leads). I would argue such instances are perfect examples of women feeling they need to play into a male-gaze game for professional advancement. But, you may say, isn’t that how the world works? My question is, why should it have to be in 2019?

In my own younger days, I was agog at any attention from men whose work I enjoyed; they were indeed gods to me. (One of Domingo’s accusers speaks of him in similar terms.) Yes, it’s dangerous to put people on pedestals, but it happens with predictable regularity in the arts world, and it can be hard to see our heroes as fallible beings who are capable of screw-ups, let-downs, and generally terrible behaviour. When I was the receiving end of some flirtation by a famous man in my 20s, I remember being flattered, stunned, bewildered (“he’s paying attention to little old me?!“) – it was a sort of high I didn’t want to come down from. I did not possess the maturity or self-confidence to be able to discern whether or not such attentions were appropriate or sincere; I only knew it was exciting, addictive, and good at quelling the blizzard of negative inner voices, all of them crying for validation. If such validation happened to be coming from the object of worship… what better thing? I felt I was getting ahead; I felt, as a twenty-something stuck in a series of dead-end jobs, I was finally progressing. I felt the true me was being heard, seen, accepted, celebrated.  Of course, it wasn’t the “true me” at all that was being recognized but the part handy to the powerful man. I gave away a version of myself, quickly and freely, in exchange for the validation I thought I needed, the feeling of advancement conflated with acceptance and affection with equal determination.

Altes Museum, Berlin, sculpture, naked, couple, man, woman, sex, face, stone, art

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Altes Museum, Berlin)

It’s tough when the only arena in which you might hope to experience intimacy (or its fantasy-laden pastiche) is a transactional one. Some powerful men will, quite purposefully, sing a siren’s song to one’s doubting inner voices, a song that promises success, wholeness, joy, that says “I can give you all this…“. Attention, flirtation, the promise of success: narcotics for a young woman with a shaky sense of both herself and her worth. It’s hard to say “no” to all of that. It’s hard to say “no” to someone you idolize, who is powerful, who says he’ll help you, who convinces you that he thinks you’re talented and sexy and brilliant. It’s hard to say “no” to the attentions of a powerful man when you, as a young woman in a far less advantageous position, feel you need those attentions, and you need to accept them to climb the ladder of success. You don’t recognize you’re being groomed because you don’t have the tools for that, much less to refuse and walk away. And even if you do recognize the predatory nature of the attention, what “choice” do you actually have? Would it be right to call it “consent”?

The use of that word has been widespread in today’s online discussions. I take particular issue with its misuse because it begs the question: from which environment — mental, emotional, intellectual, societal — does that consent arise? From which vantage point? From whose history? From which influences? A woman’s history with that word, and its power in her life (to say nothing of the culture in which she was raised), may have taught her to think of it in ways that are the precise opposite of its true meaning and lived application, thus leading to a deep internalization of patriarchal notions of power – who holds it, why, how. So I ask again: whose consent? In what spirit was such consent made and given? Was it even a conscious decision, made with the full faculties of reason, rationality, maturity, and experience? “Consent is consent!” some may argue, “Stop twisting things!”

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collectiion Bode-Museum, Berlin)

But the situation itself is twisted, because current ideas of who holds power and why have been internalized to the point of a total blindness that does not and literally cannot allow for empathy (which extends to much of the current political discourse as well). The perception of what true consent actually is, in and of one’s self, is (and was) a ridiculously complicated (though it shouldn’t be) matter when one is starting out in a notoriously difficult industry which, in itself, is adverse to change and evolution. A woman may be “consenting” because she feels there’s no other path. She may be “consenting” because she truly believes this is just how things are done, and have been done, in the industry. She may “consent” because she was raised in a culture that says men are always horny, always the boss, and always have more power than you. She may be “consenting” because the idea of courting rejection from someone she idolizes is too painful to bear, her sense of self being so closely tied up and twisted with the person she’s presented – and it may well be career suicide to say “no.” From what I’ve read today there are a number of people who simply don’t comprehend the vast power of someone like Placido Domingo – though there are just as many who do; there isn’t real “choice” in dealing with someone who has sat so high, for so long, on the throne of his own classical kingdom. Failure to recognize this constitutes the worst form of ignorance, willful or not. The exercise of choice within such a context is illusory at best. A powerful man can sometimes be very clear about the sex-in-exchange-for-opportunities thing, and so a young woman’s choice (so-called) between offering sexual favors to ascend professionally, and not having any professional opportunities at all, is hardly a climate in which any human should be expected to operate. It certainly isn’t one in which the notions of choice and consent can be freely exercised.

Bode-Museum, Berlin, della Robbia, face, art, painting, fresco, round, circle, doubt, expression

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

I want to believe that human evolution is moving far past a place where sexual transactionality within the classical industry is perceived as normal and fine and even (good grief) empowering for women. I believe serious damage – creative, emotional, spiritual – is being wrought through the perpetuation of a casting-couch culture, a damage only felt decades down the line, as women face the fallout of their perceived choices, ones made for reasons wholly unconnected with true advancement. New worlds are opening up as more people feel emboldened to come forwards and say: I don’t accept this as our system. This is not the key we should play in; this is not the aria we should continue to sing. This tempo stinks; let’s rewrite the whole thing together.

It takes a lot, to risk saying this in public, much less living it –to risk being perceived as a flake, a golddigger, a finger-wagger, an apologist, a malicious figure of angry embitterment. One must continually acknowledge that we operate within a system that’s been set up with the most strict and narrow conventions (of race, sex, opportunity), but we love the classical arts enough to push for change. It is a risk, and  areward, to be truly heard, seen, recognized, accepted for who one is, without the thousand masks we wield on a daily basis to please our respective audiences. To the ladies who spoke up: thank you, and encore.

James Levine: A Reckoning

Met opera NYC

The Metropolitan Opera, New York. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Since the news broke last Saturday, I’ve debated with myself about whether or not I should write something. The news, in case you hadn’t heard, is a big story — the story — in classical music, involving serious allegations of sexual assault against conductor James Levine, from several men who were boys when the incidents unfolded.

The main reaction I’ve noted, after the first report (in the New York Post) came out, is “everyone knew” and “about time” and “how could anyone not know?” I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t. Say I’m ignorant, or stupid, that I’m a poseur with my head in the sand — much has been said about me, and worse than that, and will continue to be said about, and directed at me, in that vein. That’s fine. I didn’t know. Remembering the things my mother would whisper under her breath about the conductor, I suspect she harboured her own suspicions, all of which she never shared in any detailed way with me. I will never know what she was thinking, but I wish she was here now to talk to.

As I wrote in a past post, one which was difficult to write in its own way and which I contemplate now for different yet oddly similar reasons, Levine was a figure I grew up watching on TV and seeing in-person at the Met, including earlier this year. He was their mainstay, their guy, the one which, if various allegations are to be believed, was shielded by powerful forces determined to keep a popular maestro. No amount of damage control or back-pedalling can erase the massive abuse of power which was allowed to occur over four decades.  Such abuse by powerful men is not, as an historian friend pointed out to me, unusual; to paraphrase what he said, “they expect there will be no consequences.” It is terrible –sickening, horrendous, past words — to consider how such men keep being enabled, however, and to reckon with the damage wrought by such heinous wielding of power. Such enabling is, alas, too often done by the self-interested, by those keen to boost careers and coffers, to maintain image and income. Those whose trust was betrayed, hope squashed, love stepped on — they go on, endure, move forwards, or, as some have stated in subsequent interviews with Michael Cooper, they don’t.

Met opera lobby

The lobby of the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Both arts writers and music fans have been grappling with the news and with Levine’s musical legacy, as well as on what they should do with their recordings, the possible future of the Met, and how the news reflects on the classical community overall. Earlier tonight I put the finishing touches on an interview with tenor Frédéric Antoun, about The Exterminating Angel, a production he recently appeared in at the Metropolitan Opera, and I debated with myself, even as I hit  “publish”: Should I? Is this wrong? Am I horrible? Levine did not conduct this work (which was on the stages of the Salzburg Festival and Royal Opera before it reached NYC), nor was he involved with its production — but Levine’s decades-long involvement with the Met means he has, by sheer presence alone, shaped the organization, even if he doesn’t have direct involvement now. He stepped down as Music Director in April 2016 but was given the title of Music Director Emeritus at the close of that particular season. How much should I feature anything associated with the Met on my website? Should I wipe everything out? Edit things a bit? Make a point never to cover their work again?

There are no quick answers to these questions for me. There is also, to my mind, no need to punish artists like Antoun, or others who perform at the NYC institution. One can accept they perform there, even as one may choose to see them in other venues, if one so chooses. What to do with my memories of seeing Levine in Berlin recently are more problematic. I’m not sure what to do with the transcendent impression which fell over me like a starry blanket at the close of Mahler’s immense Third Symphony that cold final night in October — I don’t know what to say about the feeling of having experienced something deeply, utterly beautiful. There is no other word for it. Levine got a standing ovation (a true rarity in Berlin) and several curtain calls. Were we sick? Are we disgusting? Am I wrong to have been so moved? Should I throw my memory of beauty in the toilet? Is it now invalid?

met opera chandeliers

The chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Again, there are no easy answers (at least none I trust), and there is no smoothing over with any number of reductive “music is the answer” memes. Some will and indeed, have, said that the artist and their personal life must be separated; I think that is an entirely personal decision. I have trouble watching Woody Allen movies without the benefit of context; the same goes for the work of Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, and Leni Riefenstahl, to name a few I view their work through the lens of their lives; it is my choice, my privilege, and my coping mechanism. Context is everything. To separate one completely from the other, or to imply I would only consume their work solely because of their lives, simply isn’t my style. Experiencing beauty sometimes has a truly frightful price, and I’m not sure it’s worth it, as a music lover, writer, and assault survivor.

Maybe context has become my new blanket. Though it’s far less fancy, it’s warmer through storms, and soaks up, at least a bit, the puddles of sadness that sit around everything right now. It beats wrapping myself in the transparent sheets of deceit. Call me dim as you will, but at least I am no Emperor.

 

“You Never Get To The Bottom Of It”

L-R Erwin Schrott as Leporello, Ana Maria Martinez as Donna Elvira, Erin Wall as Donna Anna, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni. Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Is opera misunderstood?

When asked this question in 2007, British director Graham Vick said, “Yes, in that people believe they need to be educated about opera to understand it. Those who respond to it viscerally and emotionally are the ones who understand it best.”
This is something that I deeply relate to, having grown up with, and been raised by, a woman who, though not super educated about opera, responded in highly visceral, emotional ways to what she heard, so much so that on Saturday afternoons she’d stand in the middle of aisles at the local supermarket, radio earphones tilted back and nearly falling off her head, her mouth hanging open, her palms up, listening to live broadcasts from the Met, as fellow shoppers shot her dirty looks and angled their carts around her. As a teenager, I was mortified; as an adult, I understand, even if I don’t emulate my mother’s grocery store habits. (Yet.)

Vick is a director known for his experimental approach. People have strong opinions about his work; some love and whole-heartedly applaud it, others think it’s overwrought, silly, dumbed-down. While I’ve not seen any of his work live (that will change soon, I hope), I think Vick is one of those people who considers himself something of an ambassador for the art form. His ideas around the lack of empathy in modern society, the importance of involving various communities, and visceral reactions to culture ring big bells with me and the things I believe in terms of the power of art and music.

Andrea Silvestrelli as the Commendatore
and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

One of the most powerful of all opera experiences for me is Don Giovanni. The opera is, as many of my regular readers may note, something of a favorite; it is also, to return to my first question, one of the more misunderstood works in the operatic repertoire. Some productions I’ve seen I have outright despised; others I found entertaining (like Komische Oper’s zany, Herbert Fritsch-directed production), while yet others made me re-think the opera entirely, illuminating its female characters and challenging perceptions of its main character. So much of what I think powers Mozart’s great opera is, in fact, the attitudes we, as audiences, bring into the auditorium; like any great work of art, our own experiences (and social conditioning) color what we experience, but when it comes to Giovanni especially, these attitudes show themselves in some very revealing ways, expressed mainly as our reactions to Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, and of course, to the Don himself.

Lately Don Giovanni has been frequently produced, what with the remount of Robert Carsen’s celebrated 2011 production on La Scala with baritone Thomas Hampson (one of the noted interpreters of the role) and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni (whose performance as Leporello I so enjoyed in Salzburg last summer); Opera in Holland Park and Opera Lausanne also celebrated their respective openings over the weekend, Gran Teatre Liceu (Barcelona) has a production opening later this month, and Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has a production next month. Don Giovanni is on now through June 30th at San Francisco Opera as part of their Summer of Love program.What is it about this work that so continues to entrance and excite artists and audiences alike? Why does the story of an unrepentant Lothario and the various women he loves and men he angers (and murders) — all within the space of one day — continue to have a grip on popular imagination? How does the work (and its telling) change through time, and why?

When I heard director Jacopo Spirei was helming a remount of a 2011 San Francisco Opera production originally directed by fellow Italian Gabriele Lavia, I was immediately intrigued. Spirei has an impressive resume of directing work, mainly focused in Europe and the UK; he got his start working with Graham Vick, and I’ve been following his career closely the last little while. Having already directed the opera two times prior to this (including at Salzburg’s renowned Landestheater), Spirei comes by his theatrical approach honestly. He spent considerable time in his twenties in England, seeing a variety of dramatic and operatic works at the English National Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the National Theatre. Eventually he went on to work with Vick at the celebrated Glyndebourne Festival. Spirei has since directed works at the Wexford Festival in Ireland, the Royal Danish Opera, Houston Grand Opera, the Theater an der Wien (Vienna), and Teatro Comunale di Bologna, among many others. Later this year he’ll be directing the opera Falstaff (based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor as well as scenes from Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) at the famous Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy.

Director Jacopo Spirei. Photo: Mary Marshania

In making his debut with the San Francisco Opera, Spirei had to take the work of another director, in a production from six years ago, and make it his own. In addition to wondering what that must’ve been like, I was also curious to learn his thoughts about various characters (especially the female ones) in the opera, and what it’s been like to work with artists who come with lots of prior experience in the role. Our conversation was very wide-ranging and, at times, quite intense, if equally friendly, and very lively. Spirei definitely has his opinions, but he has what I’d call the iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach; he doesn’t hit you over the head with ideas or proclaim decrees, but rather, contextualizes artistic and musical history, with some fun contemporary corollaries, to make truly interesting suggestions. You don’t have to agree with what he says, of course, but it’s worth ruminating on, at the very least. As I wrote in a past feature, sometimes it’s nice to be presented with new ideas on something you thought you knew very well, even if, initially, it’s a bit uncomfortable.

Owing to the wide nature of our conversation, I’ve divided our chat into two sections; expect Part 2 soon. We discuss the role of so-called “tradition” in opera, bringing the art form out of the theater, and what he meant when he recently told Newsweek that “In Italy, (opera) is all about putting on a pretty picture.” For now, here’s Spirei on Don Giovanni. 

What’s it like as a director to come to a production that already exists, and to try to put your own stamp on it?I’ve never done anything like this, but it’s been fascinating, to get, somehow, the limited set of ingredients and just create a new dish, because it’s a little bit of, when you have boundaries you are forced to be a lot more creative. Sometimes the boundaries are budget, artists, all kinds of different aspects, which is incredibly fascinating and exciting. This was the real challenge, to reinvent an element already there, although the starting point (of the original) is something that intrigued me a lot.

What was the element?

The fact the mirrors were central in the original production. I find it really attractive in a way, how Giovanni is a mirror to the other characters, showing us their real sides, taking everything from them. Somehow we’ve stripped everything away, so it’s just the element and dynamic in which the characters interact with each other and Giovanni.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni. Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You’re working with people who have a lot of experience with this work, and this character.

It’s great; it’s luxury. People come with their own luggage of experience of contributions. We’ve been working in an incredibly organic way — with (conductor) Marc (Minkowski), with Ildebrando (D’Arcangelo, who sings the lead) it’s been a great time of sharing and experiencing new material and finding new angles.

What I enjoy about working with Ildebrando is that he’s an artist who comes with a lot of experience, and a lot of expertise and knowledge, but he’s completely willing to try out new things and put himself in your hands, to experiment. It’s been really exciting to have worked someone who has been so fun. We didn’t have to do all the preliminary work; we both know the material really well, so basically a glance of the eye is enough for both of us to understand which way we’re going. It’s something I’ve never experienced in my life; with a look, he understands what you’re thinking and you can communicate with him in the same way, and then steer his performance into different directions. I’ve enjoyed that immensely.

Marc is the same. I love his approach to the tempi; it’s very refreshing, (in that) it’s very new, very contemporary, especially coming from period music. He’s an expert in that, of course — Baroque and ancient music — but he brings that freshness that conductors who come from that repertoire have. This is really exciting.

In many ways Don Giovanni feels like it belongs in the 21st century; it has so much to say about humans and relationships.

Absolutely. I’ve done Giovanni three times, in three completely different settings, time-wise, period-wise, visually as well. It’s extraordinary how much Giovanni has to give. You never get to the bottom of it. One could work on this opera forever and never get tired, though you might become obsessed, and be haunted by it! It’s a phenomenal piece to study, and like every Mozart piece, it never ceases to make us understand ourselves and the times in which we live. Giovanni is the man who is not willing to pay a price for his actions, who is completely free and without boundaries, with no morals, who pushes forward and never looks back.

Erwin Schrott as Leporello and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

What you’re saying makes me wonder, is he a symbol more than an actual man?

Yes of course, absolutely.

I’ve spoken with others who insist he is, and has to be, the latter.

Not at all! The thing is, that, if anything he is an example. What he is, is not Casanova, who is an historical figure; he’s a legend, a legendary character, and in a way, he has gone through five centuries of theater and has transformed himself every time because every century has looked at this character through their own lenses. The 18th century viewed him as a man who gets punished because he doesn’t take responsibility for his actions and follows instincts; it’s not a positive example.

The 19th century adored the element of him being against everything — but “Viva la libertà” is not a hail to freedom, it’s a hail to liberty, to do whatever you want. That’s not an altogether positive value, it’s the freedom to do whatever you like, however it pleases you, no matter what consequences it has on other people, which is the boundary of freedom. As you say, my liberty finishes when yours begins; Giovanni has none of (the awareness of consequences), so of course we’re fascinated and attracted, like we’re attracted to an abyss, or a tornado.

Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, with Erin Wall as Donna Anna (on screens).
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opero

I feel like the women really define him in many ways in this opera; they’re all incredibly important.

In the story, that day in the life of Giovanni, he doesn’t even seduce anybody! The only woman who’s in love with him is one who was abandoned from another place and is chasing him. We know he has a lot of women only by the words of Leporello about the catalogue, which is a list he makes as he says, but… is it a collection? Are those numbers real? The great thing about Giovanni is deceit; he’s constantly deceiving us as much as he’s deceiving everyone else. With Anna of course, there are lots of different approaches to that (situation), but it starts with the rape…

… if you want to call it that; some directors think it’s questionable if that’s what it actually is; I’ve come to think it is, too.

It is questionable, but once you go through the music and what she says, and the dramatic tension of the music, the trauma is there. Had she not shouted, her father would have not turned up — her father (the Commendatore) would be alive; if she shut up and didn’t do anything and let Giovanni go ahead and do whatever he was doing, her father would still be alive. She does carry that guilt, no matter how conscientious or not-conscientious she is. That’s one element. Another is that Zerlina is seduced by the money; she says “yes!” the minute he tells her, “I have a villa and will marry you.”

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni and Sarah Shefer as Zerlina.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You can’t forget positions in this opera; he is called “Don” for a reason, after all.

Absolutely.

I get frustrated with stagings that forget that part, and ones in which the women are victimized.

What’s fascinating is the characters also change. Elvira is a victim of Leporello and the catalogue aria, and we laugh at her until she tells us, “My God, he has betrayed me with so many women” and all of a sudden, we are with her in that pain. It’s the same moment when we find out our partners had betrayed and cheated on us. It’s so incredibly raw and so close to ourselves. One cannot simplify it into victims and non-victims; each one is a character representing an element of our personality.

… while also being a real human being: complex and nuanced. 

Absolutely.

___

Here’s Part Two of our chat, in which we discuss the role of theater in a broader sense, the debate on tradition in opera presentation, and opera fashion (To dress up or not to dress up?). Enjoy!

Tiptoe Through The West Side

Joyful, quiet, exuberant, contemplative.

Who knew ballet could be so many things at once?

The National Ballet of Canada‘s summer mixed program, playing as part of this year’s Luminato Festival in Toronto, is a heady mix of contradictions. The first third, “Pur ti Miro”, features the music of Beethoven and Monteverdi; the choreography in the piece, by hot dance figure Jorma Elo, is regal and joyous. The second piece, “Opus 19/The Dreamer” features the choreography of Jerome Robbins and the music of Sergei Prokofiev. The last third is “West Side Story Suite”, based on the legendary musical by Leonard Bernstein, features Robbins’ choreography once more, along with colourful, lively dancing, snaps, and vocals.


With short sections, hummable music, and gorgeous visuals, the mixed program has a little something for everyone. It was with great delight that I noted the incredible number of enthralled children in attendance at Sunday’s matinee performance, as well as numerous twenty-something hipsters. Kids get the liberating quality of dance that is, for the most part, sadly lost in adulthood. It was fascinating to observe their reactions to the music and the moves, and to observe their deep, immediate connection with the dancers.

I was equally struck by the various emotional chords that were hit within the show: funny, sad, whimsical, sad, sassy, melancholy, meditative… innumerable shades of the human experience were expressed with a turn, a hand, an arm wave, and even vocally. It’s become something of a recent phenomenon to have dancers vocalize during a performance; as with Wen Wei Wang’s Cock-Pit (presented in Toronto earlier this year), vocals are a pure enhancement of the inherent drama and silent magic of movement. We take talking -and moving -so much for granted, but to have both, within a kind of vacuum, be used for sheer expression, feels like a revolution. I could only help but wonder what Nureyev would think.

Still within the revolutionary vein, I was bowled over by seeing choreography to one of the most famous pieces of music in the classical canon. I grew up hearing Beethoven’s sole violin concerto in a concert hall; it felt new, strange, and surreal to see dancers leaping around to the concerto’s exuberant third movement. It was interesting to note how the program itself was structured as a kind of journey from traditional to pseudo-modern too; moving from the old-school world of Beethoven and Monteverdi, onto Prokofiev, and Bernstein, was like a nod to a variety of dance styles and expressions.

While I enjoyed the meditative nature of “Opus 19/The Dreamer” (the silent drama between Patrick Lavoie and Sonia Rodriguez was scintillating) and adored the vintage-thug moves and hip-swinging snaps of “West Side Story Suite”, it was “Pur Ti Miro” (roughly translated as “I simply aim for you“) that affected me most deeply. Call it sentiment, call it old-fashioned, but there was something in that old-meets-new ethos in that piece (a world premiere, no less) that felt completely provocative and, weirdly, new. Its juxtaposition with the more modern Robbins works felt like just the kind of balanced contradiction that shapes a festival like Luminato, and, I suspect, will come to define, in many ways, ballet of the twenty-first century.

Top photo: Jenna Savella with Sonia Rodriguez and Elena Lobsanova in Pur ti Miro.
Middle photo: Artists of the Ballet in West Side Story Suite.
Bottom photo: Sonia Rodriguez and Patrick Lavoie in Pur ti Miro.

All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Go Madge

There’s something really, really cool about Madonna unabashedly dancing with herself, telling her man (in her head, through her hips), “Seriously dude, this isn’t on.” It has resonance for me, and I would imagine, for many women.

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