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Axel Brüggemann, writer, journalist, portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolutely yes.

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

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

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

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

I’m like yourself there…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!

So you believe such debates help to contextualize those recordings?

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

The Salzburg Festival has this problem…

… which then is playing to another bubble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s true.

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

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

 

branches, tree, sky, nature

Essay: The C-Word Is Context (Part 2)

On a recent afternoon, I looked out at the pond outside my office window and noted a pair of geese staring at the sky in confusion. It was 12°C yesterday, their tiny flapping wings suggested, now it’s snowing! This isn’t  normal! The idea – the experience – of “normal” is gone. Whether it was real or a veneer hiding far uglier things, “normal” or our idea of it, has been blown apart. What we did in some version of then, and who we are in an ever-evolving sense of now, don’t mix or even intermingle, despite the ephemeral details  indicating otherwise. Thus does the practice of letting go – of the old, the familiar, the “normal” – ascend in conversation yet be ignored in practice; old markers of an old life, like jangling charms on a bracelet, make the right sounds, but play the melody roughly, too slow, out of tune. Nothing can be as it was, but still, we long for the return of that which we knew, or thought we knew, and thought we wanted to continue forever, and so we wait, like Puccini’s Butterfly, all night, all day, and then all night again, time blurring into self, waiting, hoping, looking for signs to materialize, in some sentimental, macaroon-coloured reverie of hope, lowering masks and taking a deep breath, eyes darting around in the darkness. It was like this and now it’s like this – not normal!

My writing focuses on the intersection of culture, media, and history, with a firm eye on current affairs, which is related to the influence of my other life, as a Professor of Media Studies. As journalists know, what is “current” one day is old the next, or more likely within hours. Constantly trying to keep up with the “new” in news renders one’s concentrated efforts rapidly obsolete, one’s words tired and old, “like too little butter scraped over too much bread,” to quote Tolkien’s world-weary Bilbo. Meaningful conversation is in short supply in such a world, and is now mediated and distributed through digital means. Cues are lost, viscerality is lost; far more valued is short, hot reaction, stoked to keep the engines of commerce turning. Horror is churned out into mere content; images of suffering are rendered war porn pleasing hungry advertisers. There is little I feel qualified to say about this, other than to continue reading, thinking, conversing, in as respectful and curious a manner as possible. This series aims to examine the ways in which individuals and organizations move, or try to move, past the hot reaction and loaded language that turns the wheels of social media and related ad technology; I have no idea if it will have any effect, and have given up hope of such impact, but I write it anyway, mainly because I don’t see this kind of analysis happening elsewhere. There’s a reason for that lack: money. Finance, or its lack, is also the root cause of misunderstandings, snap judgements, and shallow readings of events which deserve more thoughtful analyses within the classical sphere.

In analyzing the varied and deeply-rooted causes of recent Russian artist/artwork cancellation, there has been a growing awareness of the role of flexibility: who can bend, when, how much, to what cost, literal and otherwise. The ideas of “normal” held by audiences and administrations, and the ways in which the classical industry has continued to cling to those notions, veneering themselves in some semblance of it, are revealing, and mostly unflattering. Anxieties over cost, in Dollars and Euros and Pounds, is very real in the post-pandemic (or whatever phase we are currently in) landscape of the performing arts; ignoring it or pretending it is not a motivating factor in current cultural decisions is to ignore perhaps the single most vital element of the industry. The North American performing arts landscape has been immensely altered by the experience of pandemic; an LA Times report (March 24, 2022) lists ten artists who have permanently left the theatre scene in the United States, but judging from social media activity and reactions, one may safely assume there are far more departures from the industry across the continent, with individuals leaving an industry en masse, simply because they cannot energetically (financially, socially, mentally) justify staying. Organizations have, simply put, not been flexible in accommodating needed changes, particularly when it comes to freelancers (a point made with repeated brutal clarity by Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones at his blog). The single biggest factors asking for this flexibility (money and education, and how the two relate) don’t seem to be given any meaningful degree of public scrutiny in any media outlet – the need for healthcare; the need for paid ensembles; the need for early arts education across all sectors; the need for active and consistent outreach; the (great) need for far larger arts budgets; the centrality of culture to community (especially to healing the broken sense of community so exacerbated by corona isolation); the inherent comprehension that culture can and should be a cornerstone of such community and of asking vital questions within those communities – apparently the examination of such elements doesn’t drive clicks, so (I know this from experience) those stories are not being assigned in newsrooms. Editors have to justify their chases and thus their budgets; public institutions in particular (and this applies as much to arts organizations as news outlets) have been pressured, through years of heinous budget cuts, to feel they must compete with commercial interests and outlets. The two should be able to co-exist, with understandings of the roles and functions each fulfills, and yet the worst impulses and influences of one (namely ROI) have largely co-opted the base mandates of the other; thus the chance for real change, and thus real flexibility, dies. The whole tenor of contemporary conversation – around current events as much as arts and culture – been largely (if not wholly) reduced to clicks, likes, reaction, firing flames for a guarded, angry intransigence that doesn’t like looking beyond headlines, let alone making time for such examination.

Yet the old “normal” no longer exists, and it seems clear many in the classical industry are aware of this. To paraphrase Hamlet, organizations would rather bear those ills they have, than “to fly to others we know not of.” No one knows what the “new” will bring, but there are small signs that point to those who may have the bravery, and the will, to offer another path. People don’t want to race back to auditoriums; the risks are still real. What was once “normal” within the sphere of live performance experience (especially certain behaviours) is no longer acceptable; what was once taken for granted can no longer be treated as such. That sense of needing to create a new normal is lately reflected, at least sometimes, in programming choices and the will which has clearly been exercised to make them; it has been encouraging to see various organizations acknowledging this need and manifesting it, without worrying too much about sexy clicks. At the very start of the war in late February, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin made a quick if important change to their weekend programme. Contrary to reports in Russia media, Chief Conductor and Music Director Vladimir Jurowski did not (as he had been accused of) “cancel” Tchaikovsky from the entire existing program; he replaced Marche slave (written in 1876 as a paean to Russia’s intercession in the Serbian-Ottoman war) with two works by Ukrainian composer Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-1870), the Ukrainian anthem (1863), and Symphonic Overture No. 1 in D major. The latter work, with its folk-like lines, created an immensely thoughtful frisson alongside the world premiere of Dmitri Smirnov’s “Concerto piccolo” for cello and orchestra, “History of Russia in 4 anthems” (2001), a sarcastic and brilliant deconstruction of Russian machismo within the paradigm of shifting musical-political identities. Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D minor (1874) followed, its nods to Ukrainian folk melody so apparent in its final movement, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (1888) to close; its militaristic lines sounded a snide bravado most poignantly in a final movement that spoke as equally to specific tragedy as to the broader circumstances which birthed it. None of this was on any social media channels – such thoughtfulness does not play well within the strictures dictated by such platforms, nor publishers – though it was thankfully broadcast (and accessible for a month thereafter) on the public radio channel Deutschlandfunk Kultur.

Other orchestras have followed suit. The Berlin Philharmonic was featured on both their own dedicated platform (its Digital Concert Hall) and that of German national broadcaster RBB for a benefit concert held recently at Schloss Bellevue. The concert was one of many recent (and rapidly-organized) charity initiatives done in partnership with ARD, an integrated organizations comprised of Germany’s public-service broadcasters. The Berlin Phil’s programme featured two works by Valentyn Sllvestrov (b. 1937), who fled his native Kyiv earlier this month, thanks to the help of Ukrainian conductor Vitaly Alekseenok and Russian pianist Yuri Lyubimov. Silvestrov’s music is also featured in a beautiful new release by violinist Daniel Hope with Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, Music For Ukraine (Deutsche Grammophon) which, along with works by Silvestrov, includes music by Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020) and Jan Freidlin (b. 1944). All proceeds from the album’s sales will go to Aktion Deutschland Hilft, a non-profit organization working to deliver emergency aid to those affected by the war. If Silvestrov’s music known only to those with specialized knowledge of the contemporary compositional scene in Europe prior to February 24th, it is now being hoisted into something approaching mainstream awareness. Lithuanian Opera and The Metropolitan Opera both performed Silvestrov works as part of hastily-organized charity initiatives, though his Symphony No. 4 was presented by the London Philharmonic Orchestra last month as part of a regular season concert, albeit in an altered programme that impressively demonstrated the needed flexibility in accordance with the times. Some might posit that the work of the so-called “most famous living Ukrainian composer” has become something of a go-to for organizations looking to telegraph concern for current events; perhaps one ought not to question sincerity in such cases, these are worthy causes after all, and attract wide audiences and much-needed funds. But the composer himself expressed frustration at the race to embrace his work at this particular juncture, telling Professor of Musicology Peter Schmerz “that this misfortune needed to happen for them to begin playing my music. […] Does music not have any value in and of itself without any kind of war?” (New York Times, March 30, 2022)

It is a question worth pondering, especially as questions around flexibility and, related to that, responsibility swirl in the classical community. Will audiences get the opportunity to hear the works of Silvestrov, Skoryk, and Verbytsky as part of regular programming? And will organizations place them beside Russian works, or have them be played by Russian artists? Should they? Will some kind of statement be required? Conductor Ariane Matiakh, who has described herself as “a Frenchwoman with Ukrainian roots which are bleeding at the moment”, told Radio France earlier this month that she “condemn(s) the artists who have always seemed close to power” in Russia but, like others in her profession, made a distinction between the artists cozy with power, and those others who are “not able to take a stand.” Similarly, The Association of British Orchestras (ABO) released a statement in early March in which they stated that “no Russian artist should be compelled to make such a public statement, when the consequence of doing so would be that the lives, liberty and livelihoods of themselves and members of their family in Russia are endangered. We will also look after those of our staff and musicians who are personally impacted by the invasion of Ukraine.” Here the question is one of perception, of proportional concern, of turning away from the urge toward simplistic false equivalency, the problematic nature of which I outlined in Part 1 of this series). To put it plainly: there is no equivalency between artists suffering in Russia and those (artists or not) suffering in Ukraine. It’s upsetting to see such moral trafficking made quotidian, within such insulting and reductive equivalencies, when the context exists for a far deeper and more compassionate response; concern-trolling and moral policing plug up what should be open if extremely difficult discussions that must be had, in the classical world and elsewhere. It is equally vital to understand the ways in which the classical industry has, or is, or could be responding, most specifically within the context of post-pandemic recovery, with a firm awareness of the economics, inside the industry, and outside of it, via the media who cover it with less and less depth of detail and comprehension. Controversy, or the mere whiff of it, plays well to the machinery of algorithms and ad technology; a headline that uses triggering keywords or phrases (“cancel culture”, “boycott”, “ban”, “freedom”) is likely to please publishers (and advertisers) far more than one that might better represent its true content (or indeed, the actual, far more complex story). Context is often the thing left behind under duress of analytical realities (time on page, clicks, other forms of engagement metrics) but such contemporary publishing realities leave a gaping hole in precisely the spot where most cultural workers (artists, writers, composers, academics) like to think they live: the world of thinking. For every cancellation, there is another story (or more); for every decision veneered by brand management, there is another one deserving of attention. In a searingly honest op-ed (published 1 April 2022), Opera Wire Managing Editor Polina Lyapustina wrestles with her own background, the notion of supposed “cancellation” and the ways in which the recent flexibility shown by artists (Jurowski included) has proven important: “The Great Russian culture was supposed to educate (its own people in particular). Stop using it to mask problems, and excuse crimes. Stop.”

If one approaches the study of a score and only looks at its most superficial elements – sans history, sans connection to other works, sans past recordings or artists’ performances – one misses a great deal; perhaps a similarly careful and contextualized media literacy needs to be at play, particularly within the classical music realm. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve suggested that a basic education in the realities of contemporary publishing (especially within the digital realm) is required for those in the classical world – just as writers in this realm need to be aware of the particulars of music, the awareness and knowledge should be reciprocal – but this may be my most direct appeal. Never has context been more important to so many, and so many with or needing money especially. Making a snap judgement, and creating a confirmation bias around that judgement, of there existing an overarching “cancellation” of Russian culture based on cherry-picked headlines (ones which are algorithmically pushed up to prominence in Google searches) ignore immense and very important contextual roots: limited repertoire because of funding; management timidity; administrative ignorance of repertoire; audience skittishness; audience ignorance (remember, they are as culpable to those hot-reaction headlines as anyone); shifting infection numbers; optics to please a moneyed and influential donor base; ever-widening educational gaps; marketing to attract a longed-for young audience (who are largely victims of that educational gap, natch). To not acknowledge these factors and investigate them further, but instead choose a reductive understanding that plays into a mythologized (and highly politicized) clash of civilizations seems reductive when placed against the thoughtful approach which the classical industry tends to pride itself on cultivating. One cannot look at such incidents in isolation but as part of a much wider, and rapidly shifting ecosystem with innate ties to money, or lack thereof. The fashionable “reimagining” terminology has only been applied in some cases, and with utter timidity, and not seen or experienced at this moment with any level of reliable consistency that would indicate long-term commitment to change.

Yet, as with the RSB decision in February, motions toward meaningful dialogues exist, however minutely. Those motions are dependent on leadership demonstrating the kind of mature resolve which the situation requires – a resolve to open dialogues (however uncomfortable), to dare returned tickets (certainly a great risk, given the times), to court angry social media reaction (which perhaps means taking a step or two back from it – yes really; no, I’m not naive). The flexibility with which certain programming changes have been (and continue to be made) in incremental ways suggests an innate awareness of the importance of this flexibility in leading an embrace of a new normal, and the willpower to implement it. The ABO released a link to a spreadsheet listing six pieces by Ukrainian composers, their respective orchestrations, and their respective publishers, as well as a far more comprehensive link to Lviv National Opera featuring a far larger range of Ukrainian composers, and related works, performances, and useful information. Facebook groups, similarly, have been active in providing links and downloads to Ukrainian works. Some organizations are actualizing their intentions beyond charity initiatives. Writing at American Orchestras’ website recently, London Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director Elena Dubinets referenced the need for programmatic flexibility and active engagement with new and/or unfamiliar repertoire. In acknowledging her personal history (Dubinets’ husband is Ukrainian, she is a self-described “Jew from Moscow”), Dubinets reflected on how cultural connections (in both macro and micro senses) can (or should) play out within artistic realms. The complicated, all-umbrella term “Russian” music was given particular attention, with Dubinets repeatedly recognizing the contributions of Ukrainian artists to past and present classical life, and observing that the LPO’s inclusion of Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 4 in its programme last month was a symbol that “sooner rather than later, Ukrainian music will become an essential part of the symphonic repertoire.” Let’s hope these are not hollow words and empty gestures; as she notes, “Ukrainian music is less known than it ought to be”, due in part to intransigence, nervousness, and pushback by organizations who are, more than ever, risk-averse to programming new and unknown works.

This is where the Instagrammification of classical music niggles; “fun” content is favoured over meaningful items that might dare less engagement. I have sat through numerous “day in the life of” Instagram Stories released by various houses and orchestras over the course of the past four weeks; there’s nothing inherently wrong with such things, but the timing, and the content (that hideous word) is wretched. Oh, I kept thinking looking out the window at the confused geese, for an ounce of something intelligent and good, something that does not so obviously play to shallow algorithms. It’s not that I believe the classical industry is somehow “better” than entertainment outlets that utilize such strategies, but I do believe it is different, and thus it has an entirely different set of demands and realities. The willingness to embrace meaningful change might, particularly at this moment, convey a real form of real commitment to dialogue and respect (the very words Bayerische Staatsoper loftily hashtagged in their own posts at the start of the war in late February), yet the lack of commitment to such realization renders these motions as little more than optically-pleasing marketing, of lulling audiences into some perceived form of “safe” that does naught but museumify what should be a living, breathing, vital entity, with shiny, Instastory wrapping.  Arts organisations need to ask who they are serving , and more pointedly, to what end. The 2022-2023 seasons of many orchestras and opera houses have been announced, and so far, there is little if any embrace of risk, or display of meaningful change. If we are to ‘carry on’ in whatever fashion we can now, two years into Covid and amidst war, then let’s not “carry on” as per usual; it behoves every leader at every level to make a concerted effort which entails not merely the replication of an old normal but the embrace (and active cultivation) of new ones. This won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, because there can’t be, and yes, it is difficult, and indeed very risky, especially in an era where (as I also wrote) audiences are proving very slow to return, where every ticket return and disgruntled subscriber is magnified one-hundred-fold. Better not to risk even one angry letter or one pair of returned tickets, all these season brochures whisper (or sometimes shout), better to stick to the tried and the true. Carefully telegraphing We Really Care™ to audiences has priority; real change, or committing to it, is much further down the list.

I am willing to court accusations of cynicism – that would hardly be new – but I am not willing to let context and its inherent need at this juncture evaporate, not when arts and media, together, and the people who work in both, can do more. Alas, if only they were allowed to. Organizations who believe they are doing precisely what they think audiences want by doing the safe thing are only proving how little they actually know about those audiences, and how little they care about the tenor of the times; they are also unwittingly telling me how adverse they are not only to risk but, ultimately, to any form of meaningful change which the practice of their art might inspire. Those who bat around ugly phrases and espouse the beliefs inherent to them (i.e. “cancel culture”) reveal how little commitment exists to needed change, how little commitment exists toward the cultivation of context, how much attachment there is to an old idea of “normal.” That “normal”, and our perceptions of it – our attachment to it,  as audiences, as artists, as administrators, as writers, as thinkers, as lovers of culture – must be set alight. At their final stop on a recent European tour, the RSB performed a piece by Valentyn Silvestrov, “Abschiedsserenade” (2003), a hymn to endings, a prayer for beginnings. The two-movement work, written just after the passing of Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits (1945-2002), was not part of the orchestra’s formal Budapest programme but was added on and performed with gentle grace and delicacy. With its long lines and lingering tones, the work reminds one of the cyclical nature we so often take for granted. Music in 2022 can, must, be more, for everyone; to quote poet E. E. Cummings, “where everything’s nothing —arise,my soul;and sing”.

painting, oil, figures, Yablonska, Ukrainian, art, culture, history, socialist realism, war, Russia, identity, scandal, protest, punishment

Essay: On Ukraine – Moving Beyond Performance

What is there to say?

Artists and organizations – some of them – have said plenty; others, very little. Some have chosen their words carefully, like a doe making her way through a field riddled with landmines – any step provokes angry reaction, any bent blade of grass a torrent of judgement. Some have simply not said anything at all. There are arguments in waterfalls of threads online – sometimes they break a dam, mostly they don’t. Walls remain walls. That doesn’t mean hacking at them in a real way, with real tools, isn’t important. Social media has, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, been a fascinating way to observe who uses tools, and how, and why, though these platforms (whose influence, for good and bad, ought not to be dismissed) have also provided reminders of the ease with which many organizations and figures alike can hide, obfuscate, and conceal, or alternately, promote, congratulate, posture. Sometimes though, none of those things happen, but something far deeper, better, more authentic. At present that authenticity isn’t merely nice – it’s necessary.

The Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra, currently on tour, recently engaged in a fascinating series of exchanges on their Facebook page after posting a supportive message and an actionable link (which I publicly thanked them for); the transparency of such efforts and exchanges is what the situation now demands. One hopes more organizations will follow suit, but alas, such direct expression in those other arenas is being blunted by political and economic interests, not humane and conscientious ones. The meaningful change inspired by pandemic which so many had hoped for in the classical world hasn’t totally manifest. (Some may argue with me on this, and really, go ahead; sticking to my guns.) There is a feeling, in looking at the mad race back to a crap old normal that didn’t work well for anyone not at the top, that war has magnified the compassion deficit uncovered by the pandemic a hundred-fold. People are already suffering emotional burnout, and now… now. But I’m not so sure performative hashtags are the answer. Certainly, such gestures satisfy marketing departments and board members who wish to convey concern (#concern); whatever is easiest, least risky, most theatrical, requiring lowest effort but eliciting maximum applause and maintaining the comfortable position of coolness (or victimology narratives), with the requisite grab for sexy influencer clicks, well yes, this. (I get it; take a look at my hashtags, done for clarity and indexing on the internet, but still.) I naively want to believe people are still (somehow) good, that they are not all selfish, that they will take initiative, however big or small, and not for their own sake; how I want to feel there is a willingness to risk comfort and familiarity and position, that humanity will make an effort, move beyond, give a damn – not for themselves, not for bank accounts, not for comfort or the continuance of some pretentious, capital-A form of art or some jewellry-rattling form of #fancy #night #out, but because it is simply the right thing to do. Watching numerous huge protests across the world is encouraging; people care, many of them, but I wonder how much is translating into real action, a contemplation given extra force in examining various responses within the classical world.

It is a community which has, this week, been a hodge-podge of activism, protest, confusion, awkwardness,  silence, diplomacy, and carefully-worded outrage. Some, like Opernhaus Zürich, have been straight-forward: “We strongly condemn the unprecedented war of aggression on Ukraine.” The purposeful inclusion of those words (“condemn” “war” “aggression”) are incredible when seen in contrast to the approach of other houses. Clarity matters; language matters. Russian conductors Kirill Petrenko and Semyon Bychkov, have used similar clarity in their respective statements. Released through the Berlin Philharmonic, Petrenko’s note says that Putin’s “insidious attack” does indeed “violate international law.” The head of one of the world’s most famous (and storied) orchestras writing this, publicly, is noteworthy; for Petrenko (who is Jewish), music is certainly not above, nor separate, from politics. How could it be, though, considering the history and creation of so many pieces? Going further yet is Semyon Bychkov, who has written a series of strongly-worded, thoughtful responses over the past week. In one statement, he pinpoints the importance of recognizing the intersection of history, memory, conflict, and narratives, something which has been the subject of heated online discourse since the start of the war this week:

One of many signs and symbols that the country has returned to pre-Perestroika times is the dissolution of the Memorial Society founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov in 1989. Its mission was to research every single victim of repression and keep the memory of the dead alive. Through the dissolution of the Memorial on 29 December 2021 victims of repression were killed once again. This too is a form of genocide. Not in the Russian-occupied Donbas of Ukraine as Putin claims.

The Russian regime wants to obliterate the memory of its victims. If we forget them we will betray them.

Earlier this week, Bychkov announced the cancellation of a planned series of concerts leading the Russian National Youth Orchestra. Rather than sticking head in the sand and stating “culture continues” he makes real the very real idea that choices during war matter; actions result in things people will, or won’t, experience directly – and this is what creates impact in a real way, an impact which morally dominates any ostrich-like, romanticized notion of what culture (specifically classical music) can or should be. Bychkov’s cancellation is not about punishment, as the St. Petersburg-born maestro explains:

I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death’.

He writes something incredibly important just before this, that performing “under the present circumstances would be an unconscionable act of acquiescence.

This is not, it is worth nothing, an act meant to sow division; it is an act of solidarity that fully and openly acknowledges the central role of economics within the classical world, one rarely discussed but wholly vital, especially the impact the pandemic has had on culture. The money-meets-government factor is an element which certainly deserves scrutiny, and indeed it’s one many Russian artists have now dared to question. A strongly-worded open letter from Russian arts workers reads, in part, “Everything that has been done culturally over the past 30 years is now at risk: all international ties will be severed, cultural private or state institutions will be mothballed, partnerships with other countries will be suspended. All this will destroy the already fragile economy of Russian culture and significantly reduce its significance both for Russian society and for the international community as a whole.” So far the petition has more than 2100 signatories. I can only guess how many of those who signed are, or have been, on the streets to protest – there have been several across Russia, and thousands of people (including composer/musician Alexander Manotskov) have been detained . Several Russian cultural figures (including, rather notably, Vladimir Urin and Vladimir Spivakov) have signed an anti-war petition in which they recognize that “in each of us lives the genetic memory of war. We do not want a new war, we do not want people to lose their lives.” It may seem milquetoast in its wording, but as Meduza editor Kevin Rothrock pointed out, “many people are risking their livelihoods with this. It’s not your throwaway virtue signalling.” If art is about connection, as some have recently claimed, then the most important points in that line of connection must be financial; to disinclude them is to engage in a privileged form of willful blindness. Who can afford such a luxury now?

Moscow-based art museum Garage has released a public announcement in which they announce they are halting all of their exhibitions “until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased. We cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place.” A group of public figures, including author Vladimir Sorokin and actress Chulpan Khamatova, composer/pianist Anton Batagov, and Nobel-Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov, have added their names to another petition, which reads (in translation):

The war Russia has launched against Ukraine is a disgrace. It is OUR shame, but unfortunately, our children, the generation of very young and unborn Russians, will also have to bear responsibility for it. We do not want our children to live in an aggressor country, to feel ashamed that their army has attacked a neighbouring independent state. We call on all citizens of Russia to say NO to this war. 

We do not believe that an independent Ukraine poses a threat to Russia or any other state. We do not believe Vladimir Putin’s statements that the Ukrainian people are under the rule of the “Nazis” and need to be “liberated”. We demand an end to this war!

The outrage – its reality, its clarity in expression, the risk inherent to its expression – are all very real, and witnessing it across the spectrum, in real time, has been harrowing. To be blunt: I never expected Russian artists to publicly take a stand, to venture, to risk, but when they did, I am struck (mostly) by the humanity, and the specificity of language in conveying that humanity (something I think Bychkov is especially good at capturing). That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been disagreement, defensiveness, an appalling lack of compassion. False equivalency, that pungent symbol of 21st century socio-political exchange, has been expressed by some – it reads as little more than self-interested apologism; the “what aboutisms” that come with such reactions beat on the intellect and the soul equally. Such responses were taken to task by Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who shared specific and personal details of her family history, one which is, like so many of us Eastern Europeans, threaded through with tragedy:

My already very old grand-grand-parents were deported by the Russians to Siberia during the second world war. One grand-grandfather was shot. My grandparents were robbed by Russian soldiers of home and everything. Not even being allowed to keep the shoes of their small children they had to live on the street. These are facts, not opinions.

Equally clear has been the position of music publisher Bärenreiter: “We vehemently oppose violence as well as the unfounded and unjustified aggression of one state against another, for which there is absolutely no place in cultural Europe.” They added the call to “let us all think about how we can actively support the Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price just for expressing their will to live just like us.”

Herewith are two links, ones I shared with Bärenreiter, which I am sharing here – not to seem saintly, not to prove anything, but merely because of a feeling of utter helplessness; I don’t know what else can be done, but to provide something which might have a real impact past numerous other tepid words and performative gestures. Perhaps my history working for Amnesty International many years ago in Dublin is making itself known; those busy days working alongside journalists covering a variety of human rights stories left its own indelible mark. These links (to accredited charities) were shared with me by Ukrainian contacts, who have been pleading with their well-meaning, non-Slavic counterparts to please fucking do something! They contain real, actionable suggestions to real organizations, many of them working at ground level in Ukraine. 

I don’t want to offer any grand philosophical statement about how culture “erases” borders – those borders and identities matter to people. People are fleeing across them right now; the fact they’re from a certain place matters a great deal, to them and to others. People right now are arguing about those identities, warring over them, with words and weapons equally. Culture doesn’t melt anything; music doesn’t mend anything – if anything, music has the power to rip hearts wide open, to inflame passions, to provoke strong feelings and thoughts; sometimes it should. Music isn’t always some mystical prescriptive bandage meant to heal the world – history has repeatedly taught us (or tried to teach us) that such reductive understanding doesn’t exactly work, for performers or audiences. Of course, history is largely labyrinthine; right action and its effects are not. We all experience life, and its sounds, differently – anthems, marches, symphonies, operas – births, deaths, sex, love. We all come from somewhere; sometimes we leave those places, but our hearts stay. How could they not? Sing, proclaim, protest; have a voice. Your voice matters, and will in time, I think, be less a part of the labyrinth of history than a ragged, colorful thread in a vast quilt, a piece of which we take back to our homes, someday, somehow – against our skin, hidden, but close to our hearts.

(Artwork: Tetyana Yablonska, “Life Goes On”. Oil on canvas, 1970. The National Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.)
Paris, Garnier, foyer, lights, chandelier, opera, opera house, interior, music, culture, history, Europe, Paris, France, architecture

Essay: On Community, Culture, Vanishing, And The Usefulness Of Shells

The bonds formed and broken over the course of the past twenty-two months has led to reevaluations around relationships, and the kinds we want, and don’t want, in our lives. Complex equations relating to time and energy, volume and content, content and quality are being weighted against sheer exhaustion; many are just so tired and often feeling so much older than our years. If age is most accurately measured in moments than time, as Lord Byron implied, there are a good few of us in the arts who have been rendered ancient between March 2020 and now. That sense of aging has played a significant role in why and how relationships have shifted and changed. Sarah Miller’s “On Not Talking To Someone Anymore” (at her website) and Katharine Smyth’s “Why Making Friends In Midlife Is So Hard(The Atlantic) are documents of people reaching a certain pandemic point and realizing things have irrevocably shifted, for good and bad. The corona era has made those positive/negative lines sharper, and blurrier, at once; has what’s been lost, especially in middle age – outside of the physical – may or may not be worth mourning.

That loss seems more pronounced in some spheres than in others; the high-wire act of balancing solitude and community, isolation and relating, very much powers cultural expression. Vanishing and being vanished on, the sorts of people we spend time with or move away from (literally and figuratively), the nature of our relating, alone and otherwise – these notions hold particular relevance in an age where community matters less and more, at once. Such presence is more fraught (again, literally and figuratively) than at any other point in recent memory. In her piece, Miller points out that the reasons behind silences can, at least sometimes (and if you ask), be reduced to the petty, the mundane, the cutting truth (or untruth) of seeing yourself and your behavioural choices through another’s eyes (whether you have vanished, or been vanished on), and of the painful divides when experiences, time, and nostalgia for the passing of both are mismatched to the onerous realities of the present. Smyth explores the strangeness of connecting in a strange place, inwardly and outwardly, in engaging in a practice one less considered than simply enjoyed, and the various nuances of experiential difference that adhere to the digital pursuance of such. The profound loss to which articles both allude has been magnified by the relentless ephemerality of digital platforms carrying the ironic title of “social”, outlets which encourage anything but phones-away, non-posting, simple, human relating. Social media platforms, as many know, play to pandemic times: avoid safely, connect comfortably. Observing endless streams of photos posted by high school/elementary school friends/exes/co-workers/colleagues/casual contacts, one tends to automatically engage in the algorithmically-calculated behavioural compunction toward comparison-making. It is a human urge which technology has become adept at identifying and exploiting. The urge toward comparison becomes all the more pronounced when some places have live performance, and some places don’t – where some places have full houses (and antecedent requirements for that to happen), and some places outright cancel events. Such contrasts have a sometimes acidic effect for those of us in the arts, who have lost work or are still looking, who are looking to bump up CVs and pay bills. Not being a part of regular crowds these last almost-two-years (and thus not working, for the most part) encourages an insularity whereby anything good that happens to someone else, and thusly advertised, is now suspect. Envy, most especially within the cultural realm, has been writ large; those who have are in such sharp contrast with those who have not. What should be unvarnished joys – a new job, a trip, an excursion, a concert, a conversation – are flashpoints for lack, reminders of non-abundance and ultimate separation.

So much of what gets shared now seems mundane, overwrought, calculated, or a strange combination therein. People have largely burrowed into the, to quote Jim Morrison, “woolly cotton brains” of the familiar, following or leading lessons online whilst baking bread, with dusty blinds, gritty floors, and rattling furnaces intact. Ah yes, we say, seeing such familiar elements of the quotidian to which we’ve been reduced, I recognize that, yes. The yeast/flour scarcity in early 2020 has morphed into current supply-chain issues; baking shortages led to furniture shortages, and now, apparently grocery shortages, the very place the money once spent on cultural excursions, now doth flow. The familiar has become a safe bubble to love and resent, a strange new counterpoint of the era. Rising economic uncertainty, coupled with financial realities, mean community, as a lived reality, grows more distant under the weight of such mundanities, only slightly flecked these days by random twinkling lights of diversion, originating from strings of lights, rows of candles, and more often than not, a panoply glowing screens that keep us apart, talking (typing, tapping) about the same mundane things we all watched or saw or tweeted. Opening up to 50% capacity in Bavaria is a big deal – to hell with the screens, hurrah!

snail, garden, mollusk, shell

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

But Mein Gott, who would go? Should I? Will I die going to see a concert or an opera? Or wanting to keep writing about such things? Will I get sick going backstage to interview, to chat, to greet, to hug and handshake? Drinks later? Oder? Was ist noch “normal”? Not being around people, or more importantly, being only around the same tightly-controlled group of people, aggravates such anxieties, leading to a reinforcement of experiential bubbles, and that is, obviously, bad for art, but it is what many are being forced to do, if not through their own choice now, than through guidelines that dictate external conditions. Thus do silence and its hurtful counterpart (vanishing) become as normal as overcrowding and cacophony, as alternating rhythms of zen and anxiety; somehow pandemic has underlined such extremes of living, and creating. I have come to understand, at a deep level, that people with families/partners/networks/busy jobs/illness are juggling heavier balls than I, a family-free freelancer. This isn’t to diminish the sharp and painful realities of solo creative life; lack of regular benefits, precipitous drops in income, whole months of work washed away, to say nothing of continuous days and weeks of isolation, makes those uniquely spiky freelancer balls difficult to keep aloft, and more than once I have dropped them all at once along with the concomitant connections meant to make them feeling lighter and less burdensome than they really are. Having needs isn’t the same as being needy, but often the two have blurred. Things which should connect – common interests, creativity, inspiration – somehow, now, do not. Conversation feels effortful, whether giving or receiving, and when it isn’t, one often feels as if there is a sense of impermanence: so if we have a grand old chat we can be silent for two months, right? We’d all cry out our grief, cry out our disappointment, to paraphrase Rumi, but we’re all too busy trying to survive, and besides who would want to make the effort to listen to such cacophony?

Trying to interact with those with whom we share such commonalities can be (often is, lately) like speaking the same language but with different dialects. Somehow Hugh MacLennan’s ‘two solitudes’ concept takes on a broader and yet more precise meaning; there is no real, shared language but for the words that indicate precise, sometimes intricate division, within the era of pandemic. Talking classical with equally-passionate others isn’t the doddle some may assume; it can rapidly devolve into ferocious spit-balling, name-calling, intransigent foot-stomping, bragging, finger-wagging, or some combination therein. It is not news that people who love the arts (and who work in the arts) hold strong opinions, but that’s where vanishing also (alas) can come in; such relating is exhausting, and everyone is, without question, already so tired, and thus such exchanges become another burdensome ball to keep aloft. The desire to engage in these tribalistic exchanges speaks to a need for (perceived) community, one which is greater than ever, one fostered by a love of culture, and more accurately, its live expression. New avenues can and are created within the heated (if hopefully well-ventilated) atmosphere of shared experience – but such communal engagement can paradoxically encourage a laziness of thought, a dampening of curiosity; there’s a fear of going against the herd indeed, but more than that, sometimes there is precisely no thought given to not fitting in with the herd, to not parrot what everyone says, to apply nuance, to apply context, to ask for clarification and to do so privately. There is an urge to simply agree and to “amplify” (that overused word of the times), an urge applauded and underlined by platforms which, as I’ve written, are ironically meant to encourage the notion of “social.”

Lately I have decided to keep most experiences (cultural and otherwise) to myself, to not share, to not opine, to not publicly offer applause or evaluation unless I feel it is truly warranted. I’d rather discuss these things privately with my small if trusted circle, not of necessarily “like minds” but of what I would call “like spirits.” There is more community found with such contacts, many of whom hail from entirely different cultures and backgrounds – we might have a shared love of x-y-z art, but that isn’t the reason we’re friends, and it isn’t the reason we might forgive (or question) each other’s occasional vanishings and silences – and frankly, we have the balls (I hope) to push back at one another as needed, if not always welcome. Kissing ass isn’t the point – sycophancy doth not a friendship make – because authenticity matters more. We like context; we like nuance. These things take time and attention, and when there’s time to be made, it is wholly taken. Chemistry can be cultivated, but it cannot be created whole.

snail, horns, shell, movement

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

Accepting this has had personal ramifications. I have vanished on many; I have been vanished on by a great many more. I have become fussier in my interactions, and in the nature of those chosen interactions. This runs parallel with more selective listening and viewing habits; I am no longer a journalist or critic but my critical faculties now come with decidedly sharp edges, ones I wield carefully, according to that treasured context. In person, I have learned to speak with my eyes – and not. I have mastered obfuscation; I have learned silence; I thus can  vanish, in many ways. Interacting from the literal and figurative safety of a monitor has given harsh if vital lessons. Rare is the moment I will drop any mask now, literally, or figuratively. The willingness to be vulnerable is what fuels meaningful connections, but its direct exercise is far more carefully considered these days. In his book La poétique de l’espace (The Poetics of Space) first published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1957, Gaston Bachelard devotes an entire chapter to shells and their paradoxical nature within the realms of creative human development. He ties artistic life with evolution of living forms, with “these snail-shells from which emerge quadrupeds, birds and human beings. To do away with what lies between is, of course, an ideal of speed… ”. In contemporary terms, that “doing away with” might constitute a great robbery, especially if one considers the heightened speed the digital world of 2022 demands, a pace which conflates perpetuation of connection with meaning, only to encourage its simultaneously illusory nature. Superficial ties are (mostly) easy to break; contacts we haven’t met (or barely met) are easy to vanish on. The people we meet and know are not immune to this virus of speed and ease, either, nor to the subsequent (and often casually done) breaking of those ties, ones which, within the creative realm, can be so inherently valuable. Bachelard continues, and offers a clue as to how to sort the vanishing/vanished-on fraught nature of modern adult relating:

A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being. The most dynamic escapes take place in cases of repressed being, and not in the flabby laziness of the lazy creature whose only desire is to go and be lazy elsewhere. If we experience the imaginary paradox of a vigorous mollusk – the engravings in question give us excellent depictions of them – we strain to the most decisive type of aggressiveness, which is postponed aggressiveness, aggressiveness that bides its time. Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones.

Cruelty, it would seem, has been a hallmark of the pandemic era – cruelty, selfishness, pronounced exclusion and snobbery, bubble-think; they are behaviours that would seem to confirm beings comfortably, lazily ensconced within respective shells. For live culture and those who live by and for it, there should be another way, but we are all human, none of us (not even or especially artists) above any other with regards to the hurt humans are well capable of inflicting, and of feeling. And that capability to feel has not left, and indeed, should not.

But let us be wolves, then, in our shells, considering how best to spend and direct our energies and attentions. Energy goes where attention goes: let us hope we have learned how to direct it wisely. I want to feel such attention can be wielded, if not with great compassion (that seems like a big ask, and not a little precious), then at least with great curiosity, that such an exercise will get us out of our shells now and again, if only to breathe the cold, clean air.

opera, Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, stage, culture, opera, performance, reach, hands, beautiful

Essay: Bridging The Divide

One of the most painful aspects of the current era has been the observance and experience of chasms. Opera, as an art form, mixed with the reality of pandemic may find fascinating intersections within the virtual sphere, but that meeting does not translate very effectively, at least so far, within tangible form. Cost, travel restrictions, vaccination passports, and Brexit challenges aside, many more barriers exist which ask for careful consideration. The opera road has many divergent avenues which are all largely based around locale; views and vistas along respective routes, to say nothing of who travels them, vary widely. Big trucks, small bikes, winding paths, superhighways; “how far to the next pit stop?” and are-we-there-yet-isms; lamps, darkness, diners, picnics; baggage, necessities, extras; time, route, and of course, purpose, are all paramount, but none trumps locale, of calculating just how one actually gets from Point A to Point B, and just who’s going to pay for that particular ride.

Such matters came to mind during Bayerische Staatsoper’s final presentation of the company’s 2020-2021 season, a performance / livestream of Tristan und Isolde featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Anja Harteros in the title roles and outgoing Music Director Kirill Petrenko on the podium, with a moody production by Krzysztof Warlikowski. During the second intermission, German media personality Thomas Gottschalk, acting as event host, spoke with American baritone Sean Michael Plumb (who was singing the role of Melor) about the differences between North American and European systems, highlighting obvious financial realities and the ways in which certain perceptions relate to not only aesthetic expectations but to overall presentation, as well as to the early and regular exposure to classical music. I confess to being struck by this exchange, especially the questions – ones that are rarely if ever asked in interviews, let alone at the intermission of a major production at one of the world’s foremost houses; they’re the sorts of things I tend to discuss privately with friends, not openly in a broadcast, for thousands to hear and ponder. Yet such an exchange is worth publicly contemplating in an era when some North American opera/classical devotees may well be looking across the sea green with envy (or blue with sadness), highly aware that homegrown and European models are simply not comparable. Artists and administrators who have traveled from Europe to North America, whether on a contract or in lengthier capacities, are struck by such sharp contrast, within the realms of style and approach as much as the realities of funding on one side and audience expectations at the other. There are a lot of those expectations to fulfill, many more demands to be met at every turn, and sitting at the obvious core of it all, of course, is money. In many senses it is miraculous that wheels turn at all in North America, given the delicate state of funding, the realities of union negotiations, a near total lack of media exposure, and widespread public indifference to an art form so heavily laden (if not outright presented) with hideous clichés, literal as much as figurative.

And while there’s plenty of talk about the funding side (not wrongly), the other aspect which must be considered is education, perhaps now, more than ever. Generations of brutal government cuts in Canada and the United States, to education as well as to public broadcasting services, have cultivated an environment whereby experience, understanding, and appreciation of the arts has been perniciously removed from numerous non-arts contexts to which is dependent; history, social issues, politics, and other art forms (literature, painting, dance) are now largely disconnected from any form of live performance art and/or presentation. The teaching of history, in all of its diverse and frequently ugly aspects, has been divorced from that of cultural expression (and direct experience) by generations of teachers who may well not know or understand the role of culture themselves, and who, not unlike opera companies, are working in relation to the decisions of their own boards and committees, and the related budgets as set forth by each according to respective government bodies. Teaching journalism at post-secondary institutions myself, I wrestle with how to infuse my media teachings with music; students tend to get fired up through sounds, not words, because sound, in most spheres, has a resonance words do not (cannot) wholly possess. Sometimes  international examples (written + audio/audio-visual) are given within the contexts of lectures and homework; study this, listen to that; watch this, what did you get out of that, and how can you apply it to your work? The results are usually insightful, enlightening, expansive, lending themselves to new questions – and that’s precisely the intention.

Encouraging such enthusiasm is central to education, particularly for endeavors attempting to integrate the world of culture within an environment that would seem to spurn and diminish such efforts. Stefan Zweig writes in his momentous memoir The World Of Yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers, 1942) that “enthusiasm is infectious among young people. It passes from one to another in a school class like measles or scarlet fever, and by trying to outdo one another as fast as possible novices, in their childish vanity and ambition, will spur one another on.” Infection does not live long in a state of lockdown, as many of this era certainly know; enforced isolation, within education as much as artistic realms, is its own form of hell. Teaching online this past year was harsh for all involved; the “enthusiasm” of which Zweig writes was in little supply, yet I found its expression in some unexpected if delightful places. At the end of various classes, there would almost always be some students who would want to chat – about the lesson and the issues we raised, about things they’d seen/read/heard which were somehow related, about the various music things I’d brought in as illustrations of this or that concept. Very often there were further questions, about how I became interested in opera, who introduced me, what I specifically liked. Such curiosity and enthusiasm would later be glimpsed (explored, realized, manifest, however tentatively) via formal submissions, whether written or via audio or visual means. How different these exchanges might’ve been within a live context is difficult to say; would students have possessed as much boldness? Did the perceived safety of a monitor – distant, faceless if they so chose (most did), vocally disembodied –  make the asking of such questions, about a world so foreign (and perhaps daunting) to them, less awkward? I find the medium of a monitor energetically deadening, that it robs me of the vibrations and resonances which accompany the experience of the live, whether in the house or the classroom; one senses the receptors inherent within learning and response, which allow one to fully listen and fully feel, are simply not there. I never felt entirely as present I should’ve been for my students from behind the screen, and yet there was something about the experience that encouraged curiosity. Hurrah!

Just how much this curiosity may or may not be expressed in the autumn is questionable. As of now, classes and labs are to be held in-person partially, with a 50% in-room capacity. It will be another chasm to cross, creatively, enthusiastically, with much courage, curiosity, commitment. I am not quite sure what I’ll be using, music-wise, as part of my instruction, but by December, I imagine we will all be thirsting to attend some form of live music event, perhaps genres not yet anticipated. Until then, I’ll be cocking an eyebrow at the various education departments of opera companies, hoping they encourage the experience and exercise nuance, rumination, and curiosity; though not formally part of the STEM system, they are vital to helping close the chasm to which Gottschalk and Plumb’s exchange alluded. It isn’t about budgets now; it’s about brains. Bitte, let’s use them, in all their various capacities, through all the various trips.

Graham Vick, Festival Verdi, Parma, Stiffelio, director, opera, theatre, staging, performance

Remembering Graham Vick, In His Own Words

It is difficult, if not impossible, to express anything meaningful in relation to the death of director Sir Graham Vick. Tributes are filling social media, many written by artists with whom the 67-year-old CBE-honoree worked throughout his illustrious four-decade-plus career, and amidst them, palpable veins of grief and anger, cries of “too soon” (Vick died of complications from coronavirus) and heartbreaking expressions of bewilderment. Imagining the opera landscape without Vick’s voice, literally and figuratively, is a very strange endeavour. To say he changed the centre of opera-theatrical gravity is putting things too mildly; he changed the entire universe, and many would argue, for the better.

Vick was a strident believer in opera being an art form for everyone, and was a champion of experimentation, risk, and diversity. Named director of productions for Scottish Opera in 1984, Vick went on to Glyndebourne, where he was director of productions from 1994 to 2000. He founded Birmingham Opera in 1987 and remained its artistic director. He helmed the works of Shostakovich, Britten, Wagner, Mozart, Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, Schoenberg, Rossini, and Prokofiev; he collaborated with a number of contemporary composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Ravi Shankar, Jonathan Dove, Stephen Oliver, and Georg Friedrich Haas, and had several projects planned (including production of new commissions) across the U.K. and Europe. To say he was modern is too cliched; to say he will be forgotten is impossible. The recollection of seeing – nay, experiencing – his work live now, at a time when so much of the live experience has been shuttered and is dictated by perceptions deeming opera elite, irrelevant, a frill, a fringe, a frippery, is to recall the work of a man who not only knew better, but proved it.

In 2017 I had intended to interview Vick about his award-winning production of Stiffelio at the Festival Verdi in Parma. That conversation unfortunately never took place (alas, poor timing), but I will always remember walking slowly away from the Teatro Farnese one warm night in October feeling as if I was seeing the world with entirely new eyes; the dim street lights that outlined the jumbles of boys gathered on street corners, the shouting, the darts back and forth to groups of girls, the hand-holding couples, the older woman stopping and starting along one wall, catching her breath… everything was familiar, strange, distant, immediate. Good theatre is meant to have this effect, of genuinely changing one’s perceptions and experiences of life outside of the theatre proper (I think), of cultivating curiosity and encouraging some form of empathy (or maybe “observation” is a more appropriate term here, considering Vick’s staging) – my experience of such art, of such direct and unfiltered theatrical approach, had been rather limited up to that point, and in the case of opera, I’d become inured to blithely sitting and gawking in silky finery, my senses more attuned to the orchestra and the voices; my expectations had, with very few exceptions, been unconsciously lowered around visuals and visceral understanding, an experience I only became aware of through the direct immersion (quite literally) in Vick’s production. His vision, as with so much of his oeuvre, demanded immediacy, contemplation, interaction, even (sometimes) direct engagement – with words, music, sounds, action… feelings. His stagings weren’t lessons (nor were they meant as such) but were very often challenges – to whatever baggage we may have brought, consciously and not. Stiffelio forced me to throw out that baggage, to set it alight; as the daughter of a confirmed Verdi lover, Vick’s intentionally confrontational production was not the medicine I necessarily wanted at the time, but was precisely the dosing rather desperately needed, and at some unconscious level, deeply desired.

This year’s edition of Festival Verdi will be dedicated to Vick’s memory; it opens on September 24th with a production of Un Ballo in Maschera, helmed by director Jacopo Spirei and based on an original project by Vick. The administrative and artistic teams at the Teatro Regio di Parma and Festival Verdi (including General Director/Artistic Director Ana Maria Meo and Music Director Roberto Abbado) stated in a formal release that “(t)he world of music and theatre loses an artist with a sharp eye, extraordinary sensitivity, attention to young talent, the ability to bring to light the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of our lives on the notes of scores written centuries ago, the ability to discover opera and make it loved by the broadest communities far from the world of culture, highlighting the values, feelings, and themes that bind it so closely to our contemporary world, our everyday life.”

Mille grazie, Graham, per tutto. x

Graham Vick, Festival Verdi, Parma, Stiffelio, director, opera, theatre, staging, performance

Graham Vick rehearsing Stiffelio in 2017. Photo: Roberto Ricci / Teatro Regio di Parma

From Graham Vick’s January 2021 chat with Oxford Contemporary Opera:

“The aim is to have people not be prejudiced about the word (“opera”), to not change the word… isn’t that the job, really? I mean, Luciano Berio, he called the first one I did, Un re in ascolto (A King Listening), he called it a “musical action”… (and) in the late 20th century, everybody was trying to find a new label, (everybody) was experimenting with non-narrative opera […] but there’s nothing wrong with opera. Opera has this incredibly rich, 400-year history, and the only thing wrong with the word is the prejudice.”

“I believe that opera is its own art form, and it’s a huge art form, but it’s based on singing; that’s where its expressive heart is, is in singing. And the sung word, the human voice, is the most natural. When someone is singing good and open and in touch with themselves, (it) is the most immediate conduit to the human soul.”

“Everybody wants the star delivering the material… and that is fundamentally anti-theatric. It means, in fact, they perform their brand – in modern parlance – […] and so you might begin – here I’m being very rude, but I’ll say it anyway – you might begin by thinking The New Tenor is really interesting and fascinating, then by his fourth or fifth role you’re beginning to say, “It’s a little bit stuck and mannered” and eventually you’ll think, “That’s all he’s got to offer”… but it’s saleable, it’s packageable, because it’s a groove that sells recordings, that goes with someone who’s found his public. Many people fall into this rather disappointingly narrow track. The liberation of singing, the fact it should go all the way through the whole of your persona, the whole of your physical and psychic persona… the sound should resonate through it all… the people who are capable of living and communicating through that sound are the true high priests and priestesses of the art form.”

“There’s no substitute for understanding the words.” (referring to the English translation of operas)

“You can get the chorus of La Scala to do the most phenomenal mezzo-voce/mezzo-piano in the middle register – magic, like you’ve never heard. And that’s utterly beautiful. But if you want to hear the voice of the Russian people crying in despair and anger about religion and about politics, if you hear what we do in Birmingham, it speaks an entirely different way: devoid of polish, devoid of sophistication, devoid of training, but direct from the soul, direct from the heart, and meaning being 100% what they’re doing, not meaning via technique, via beauty, via sound, via keeping-everybody-else-happy. It’s unique. And that is a different way to deliver art. Prosciutto crudo, not prosciutto cotto.”

“The mess of opera and this pandemic is, of course, enormous, because not only the pandemic but with, of course, Black Lives Matter, and what’s happened this year, and so really for the first time a lot of people are finally taking diversity as a serious issue… but not really, of course, because they’re not really doing their proper work at the moment, they’re doing small projects, (with) small audiences. So it’s quite easy to change the apparent face very quickly. The truth is, when we come out (of the pandemic), we’ve now discovered – I believe everybody has now discovered, what we’ve always known in Birmingham – which is, we should be performing for the whole city; that’s what our work is and for, but our tickets cost £17.50, for everybody […] that gives us a completely different audience. I read statements on the websites of theatres, policies about equal opportunity and so on, but I don’t think we can fool ourselves that there is any possibility of any kind of equality, any kind of cultural democracy, unless people can afford to buy a ticket. And I think that is going to be an enormous problem, because the money is tight.”

“We have to include a much broader community in what we produce, in how we produce it, in how we communicate its truths, and in who we put on our stages, in our pits, in our choruses, in who you see around you in the audience – all of this has to change in order (for opera) to have any validity. But I don’t see, at the moment, any artists leading that charge. And I think it has to be an artistic charge.”

“What happens is, gifted, talented people start(ing) off initially as angry as me get sucked into this amazing thing that is opera – this big, soupy glorious, glamorous, thrilling world – and they lose their judgement. They lose their social and political judgement, and turn their back on where they came from. So that’s the message for you all, and what I want to say: be true to yourselves. Because the world has to be changed.”

“There are many, many ways of defining the word “excellence”.”

Top photo: Graham Vick at Festival Verdi rehearsing Stiffelio in 2017. Photo: Roberto Ricci / Teatro Regio di Parma

VOPERA: “It’s Always About Authentic Storytelling”

VOPERA, Ravel, poster, Virtual Opera Project, Rachael Hewer, Tamzin Aitken, L'enfant et les sortileges

Rachael Hewer is probably rather tired of the color green. The UK-based director and theatre artist is the founder of VOPERA, the Virtual Opera Project, which premieres its first production on Monday (November 16th), Ravel’s one-act opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Conductor Lee Reynolds (Associate Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain) leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a re-orchestration of the score for 27 players, and the cast comprises more than 80 performers, all of whom, throughout the course of this difficult year, participated in rehearsals via Zoom and subsequent audio recordings. Hewer constructed a homemade green-screen studio out of their garden shed, using the FX technique to overlay the recorded cast’s singing faces with captured movement in a unique and imaginative operatic form of body-doubling. As it turns out, she spent a lot of time in that shed and in-costume over the past few months. The theatre artist has, in the past, worked in various creative capacities, as a director, actor, and assistant director, at Devon Opera, Glyndebourne, Opera Holland Park, and the Royal College of Music, to name a few. Hewer was also a winner at the International Awards for Young Opera Directors, Moscow in 2019. VOPERA, which marks her first all-virtual production, features the work of British artist Mark Wallinger, show designer Leanne Vandenbussche and cinematographer and VFX Editor James Hall.

With help from her partner, Hewer provided the movement for the many roles within the opera, in a production chock-full of talent in vocal, design, and administrative areas. Producer Tamzin Aitken has extensive experience as an arts manager and creative consultant specializing in the classical music realm. In the past decade Aitken has worked with Glyndebourne, English National Opera, the Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre and its resident London Philharmonic Orchestra (including involvement in an imaginative semi-staging of The Rake’s Progress in late 2018); when the first lockdown struck in early 2020, she was getting set for work in Paris, on a new production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea for Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Hewer approached her at the beginning of the VOPERA journey in spring 2020 and, as you’ll read, the two women (who have yet to physically meet) enjoyed an immediate and very palpable chemistry. They were subsequently able to assemble a brilliant international cast and chorus spread across several countries and timezones. Mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds, who has appeared at Royal Opera House (ROH), Opera Philadelphia, and Opera Australia, sings the lead role (something she’s done previously on the stage of Komische Oper Berlin); soprano Karen Cargill, known for her work at The Met, the Edinburgh International Festival, Glyndebourne, the ROH, as well as the BBC Proms, sings the role of Maman; bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, who has performed with San Francisco Opera, Den Norse Opera (Oslo), Houston Grand Opera, and The Met, sings Un Arbre. The project is presented  in collaboration with the Concordia Foundation, which helps support young musicians and initiates educational programs for kids from under-privileged backgrounds, while creating musical projects and presenting concerts at various London venues.

Ravel, composer, French

Maurice Ravel, 1925. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Ravel’s 1925 opera, his second, was written between 1917 and 1925, and features a libretto (by Collette) filled with surreal elements; it concerns a naughty child who willfully destroys various objects (a clock, a china cup a teapot), throws a tantrum, and is, in turn, visited by said objects (and characters, and animals) and is redeemed by a small act of kindness shown to an injured squirrel. The opera deals with themes of claustrophobia, isolation, connection, engagement, sincerity, and benevolence, themes with intense relevance in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has underlined the need for collaboration, community, and open-hearted goodness at a time when barriers are being erected and widespread closures are happening in ever-increasing numbers, in literal and figurative senses. The opera’s timeliness felt central to both Hewer and producer Tamzin Aitkin as well; the idea for presenting it originated with Hewer herself, who experienced her own brand of restlessness amidst the first coronavirus-related lockdown of 2020.

A vital point in the project’s creation is the extent to which Hewer and Aitken were determined to ensure payment for all involved; VOPERA was not to be a ‘charity gig’ but a fully paid one for everyone involved. Giving temporary employment to over 135 people in total – performers, musicians, technicians, administrators alike – the project is, as its release notes, “ a platform for many to practise and perform in an innovative new way” , a way that includes proper payment. Writing as an artist freelancer for a moment here, I find it very heartening to see how VOPERA’s model (a smart combination of fundraising and sponsorship) is providing an important model of a possible way forwards, underlining with no great subtlety that the “exposure as payment” model so frustratingly common to so many websites and creative endeavors is, particularly in these coronavirus times, both deeply insulting and wholly diminishing – for art and artists alike. Bravo and thank you, VOPERA.

As well as payment, the subject of mental health has been central to the project from its inception. Returning to one’s art form is, as many are learning, not a simple matter in the age of pandemic. From the start, Hewer and Aitken ensured that qualified mental health practitioners were present throughout the entire production process. “Back to normal” isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when “normal” itself feels like such a distant, far-off thing, and it was refreshing (and more than a bit heartening) that, throughout the course of our lengthy conversation last month, all of us could share struggles, self-doubts, and deep-seated anxieties. One thinks of Albert Schweitzer’s quote here, that “(c)onstant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” It applies as much to the “l’enfant” of the title as it does to pandemic life itself; surely what the world needs is kindness, more than ever, and if that kindness is concomitant with creative expression, all the more the better.

VOPERA’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges makes its debut on Monday, November 16th at 8pm UK time on the LPO’s YouTube channel as well as online cultural broadcaster Marquee TV; it will be available to view for thirty days.

Lee Reynolds, conductor, LPO, recording session, VOPERA, Ravel, London Philharmonic

Conductor Lee Reynolds recording L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Where did the idea to produce Les Enfant online come from? 

TA It’s very much Rachael’s baby.

RH It started because I was totally miserable and felt completely lost at not being able to do what I’ve always done my whole life, and I thought, “I can’t be on my own, there must be loads of people who feel the same way as I do” and then, “What can I do about this? I’m not a spokesperson so I cannot lobby government ministers; I’m not qualified or capable of saving a building or organization…  but I can make a show, and bring the best out in people, and get a group of people together to make something.” So it’s about providing a creative focus for as many people as possible, to try and give them something to focus on artistically that will help them not feel as miserable as they were. That’s it. And then I listened to (L’Enfant) and I realized, “This piece is a narrative about what life is like at the moment; it’s a child being educated at home, who reacts to an unprecedented and uncontrollable situation” and… that’s the world.

It’s interesting you chose this, an existing piece, in a year that features numerous new works.

RH It is a masterpiece; Ravel is a genius. I don’t think it’s done enough.

TA The thing that excited me about it is that it takes an established part of the opera canon and totally reimagines how we can work with that canon. And you know, it’s not that it’s a modern production, it’s that the mechanics of how we are making opera have been completely transformed by how this project is working out. I think that has to sit alongside new work and new voices, telling current stories in the first person but this does that as well and speaks to how resilient opera is but also how adaptable it can be. And it was that area which was so exciting. For me personally, and this has been true for everyone engaged in the project, it’s the potency of being able to do your job again… in a curtailed and altered fashion, but it’s extraordinary, to be able to wake up each day and say, “I’m going to engage in making something creative and in telling a story” – which is what many of us had been doing, and then it got taken away from us. That’s what’s been part of the excitement for me.

How did you get involved?

TA Rachael reached out to me through a mutual contact; she’d approached me about something else, and Rachael wrote me a note in… July? I think?

RH I feel like I’ve  known you all my life!

TA We didn’t know each other before, and we haven’t yet met in-person!

RH There are so many people I’ve been working with closely on this project, and I haven’t actually met any of them! I was thinking about this the other day, how I wrote Tamzin a note, and she rang me and I thought, “Oh my goodness, what am I going to say?” being really nervous, because to me, Tamzin was and still is this big and important person who knows a lot about a lot of arts things I don’t know about, and I remember thinking in that call, “What should I say?” and putting the phone down and having this sense of, “Well, who knows what she’ll say about doing this project, but I really like her!”

It’s been interesting to note bubbles – the physical ones, the psychological ones; there’s a real sense this year of people only wanting to be or communicate only with their bubble. But the pandemic has simultaneously burst a lot of bubbles because it’s forced people to reach beyond them, especially in the arts world, which can be very cliquish indeed. I wonder how this might change how you work going forwards.

RH Oh it’s changed me completely. Before this I was really self-conscious, I had terrible self-esteem and I still do, at least to some extent, in my personal life, but I went through my professional life thinking, ‘nobody likes me, nobody wants to be my friend, everybody’s laughing at me’ – that’s what I used to wake up thinking…

This sounds familiar.

RH … right? I know I’m not on my own in this. We’re all ruled by all these irrational emotions. And now, because everybody’s experience of me (in this project) has just been who I am and what I believe in and how I choose to be around people, because I’m not working for an organization, I’m not being watched, I’m not being observed or under review or scrutiny to see if I’ll get the next job – it’s just me, and who I am and what I’m like. I have such amazing feedback from people about this whole thing, the whole process, and that’s really done me a lot of favours, and actually what happens now when I do venture out to the real world, which as only happened a few time so far, people I don’t know at all are saying, “You’re the one doing the opera film, it looks great! What an idea!” And these are people who never would’ve never said that to me before!

TA One of the other things to say about the project, and it speaks very much to Rachael’s leadership, is the exceptionally humane care that bleeds through every element of what’s going on in terms of the emotional support and the authenticity of every exchange that goes on. It feels like a very different way of working. I have worked with incredible people and incredibly supportive teams before, and projects where you feel you’re on your own and you’re asking people for help and it’s all very collaborative – but it feels like there’s a real shift to a way of working and creating art that puts peoples’ emotional well-being at the centre of the process as much as the artistic product and … I don’t think I ever want to go back to working in any way where that is not front-and-center of the agenda.

director, theatre, artist, Rachael Hewer, founder, VOPERA

VOPERA founder and director Rachael Hewer

RH I’m really worried that some people might think of this as a weakness, actually. I am a very emotional person; I have my heart on my sleeve, and I do not believe in this us-and-them thing, even working with my assistant directors. A lot of the time I’m the assistant director, and I know the director is very much like, “You can’t share everything with everybody!” And I don’t know why you wouldn’t, but I’m aware some think of it as a weakness, that you have no self-control or that you’re not a good leader – but I think it takes more strength, I think it takes more determination, and certainly a lot more time and effort to articulate my message in this way, because I have to be completely unafraid to be myself around people I know well, around people that I admire, around people I’ve never met before – like yourself! I just have to have the confidence and the faith and freedom in my own personality – whereas in the old world, you just get into a routine of trying to be like the person next to you, because the person next you is successful, and in order to be successful, you think, “I need to be like just this person because that’s who the people in charge like.”

How much has this project allowed you to embrace the idea(s) of strength through vulnerability, credibility through emotional honesty, with less emphasis on brilliance – which is fine, hurrah learning -– and more on humanity? I admire your mental health support as such a central part of this project.

RH I can’t stop myself from saying this: I think it’s really frighteningly short-sighted to think, “Stick performers on a stage and they will automatically get on with doing what they’ve been missing doing!” – this return to performing is a really sensitive and fragile procedure, and nobody is prepared for that, because everybody will react differently, because we are all different.

TA There was a really interesting piece I read, recently something Monica Lewinsky wrote about the state of mental health right now, and the f-words, fear and fragility, and, wouldn’t it have been astonishing if there was, as well as the daily briefings on health, briefings to talk to us all about how we were responding to the current situation mentally? My experience personally and professionally has been … well, the conversations you start with, “Oh hi, how are you?” – the answers to that question now are much more honest, and people are much more willing to go, “Actually you know what, I had a massive cry; I heard my first bit of live music in ages from someone busking down the street and it made me weep.” Rachael and I have had these honest conversations; we barely knew each other at the beginning of this process but we were incredibly frank about the state of our mental health, because it informs how you are able to work that particular day. To take it out from this into something bigger, I have noticed that across the conversations I’ve been having with people outside of this organization, I work with a charity (Play For Progress) that connects music with young refugees, and everyone I’ve been speaking to, this shift in approach has been really apparent. But it feels really exemplary in terms of the structure Rachael has set up here, and I think it would be a real shame to return to a situation where we’re not being sensitive to other peoples’ well-being in the way that we’re working.

That word “fragility”, even in the arts, is perceived as a weakness; I wonder how much that’s changing and how much work is a form of therapy right now.

RH I need to be accountable, I need to have people relying on me to provide something, I have to have a purpose, even if it’s to empty the bins and put the chairs out – I have to have a purpose. Knowing you were expecting me at a certain time today made me think about this, I had a bath last night and washed my hair. When all my singers were expecting an email or responding to a form or whatever, to have a purpose and be accountable for something means that what I can give artistically has a value, because somebody is waiting for it, somebody needs it and somebody appreciates it. That’s what it is for me.

Tamzin Aitken, producer, arts, classical, London, VOPERA

VOPERA Producer Tamzin Aitken

TA I think it’s interesting that as a culture, and in Western culture particularly, when we meet someone new the question is, “What do you do?” I desperately want to get away from that as a conversation opener, but it’s shorthand for “Who are you?”… I think so much of our sense of self and identity is tied up in our work and particularly where that work has a sense of vocation – and for a lot of creatives, it does, it goes beyond a societal-role thing, it’s identifying you as your work when you’re an artist, at least to some extent – but there are so many people who’ve lost their jobs or had contracts canceled or had no focus at all over these months, that their sense of self and identity has just been really damaged. So with this we’ve had a lot of feedback from singers who said what Rachael has said, that having a focus, something to prepare for, having music to learn and rehearsals in the schedule, having a diary, and also having a date to look forward to, when that work will be shared, has been really meaningful.

RH We had rehearsal schedules, a number of weeks that were packed with back-to-back rehearsals, whether it was French coaching on one laptop or music coaching on another laptop, and I had to generate those rehearsal schedules. And I’ve spoken to performers and they said, “It is not the curtain calls and the opening night’s applause that we miss – we miss getting the emails and the ‘Oh no, I’ve read the callsheet wrong!’ and the ‘Oh God I did that audition!’ and ‘I have to be here at such-and-such time’ – it’s all the stuff in-between. This operation is global, so we’re working with people all over the world, and we had about six weeks’ worth of rehearsal in one way or another, all spread out, and nobody was late. Never. Whatever timezone they were in, whatever problems they were having, not once was anybody late. And I think that shows how much people needed this.

And you were very clear from the beginning that people were to be paid for this. As a freelancer, that’s very meaningful! This attitude that creative work, especially online work, isn’t real wor and that “exposure is payment” are horribly diminishing, but they seem to have proliferated throughout the pandemic. Did you have a payment model from the beginning?

RH There was never any question about it. Because not paying people is wrong.

TA You’ve articulated it well, Catherine – it’s not a hobby; it’s peoples’ profession. And loving your work doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s work. I think… there have been people who’ve said to us, “Oh, don’t worry about paying me, it’s meant so much I’ve been able to do this!” and you adamantly say, “NO, that’s not acceptable.”

RH We chase those people like, “Really, you’ve earned this, you are valuable to us, we needed you!” And we spent a long time fundraising.

TA It speaks to the collaborative, ensemble nature of this project as well, that every single person gets paid and it’s a very equitable structure. I think we can be candid about this, that we have a series of budgets in terms of our fundraising structure; there was a bare minimum we knew we had to meet in terms of paying people, and singers, a lot of the people we’re working with, had their contracts cancelled for a whole year, so that’s 12 months’ worth of work down the drain. This in no way replaces that, but this feels important, that those people get paid first. It’s a very new way for me to work, and we’ve had incredible generosity from a couple individuals and foundations, and then loads of people in the community, those who’ve lost work or those who love the arts, they’ve all made small donations as we go. We’ve got this structure for each bit we fundraise so that everyone involved gets a fee increase, a percentage more as we go up. It’s been really important to say to people, “We know you’re getting hit” – and at a point in time when there’s so much uncertainty with so many people who, for whatever reason, have fallen through the cracks in terms of getting support, when there are artists outside the UK, in America and across Europe, who’ve had various levels of support or had none at all, it feels really important they are able to do professional paid work.

Is this something you could see continuing as a model? 

RH The thing is, it’s the piece, this piece is structured so that there is no more than one singer in one scene, there are a lot of scenes that only have one person in them, so it lends itself very well to how we’ve managed to put this together. If somebody asked me to do a Traviata or Carmen like this it would be very different, and it would be very difficult, but by no means impossible. I had somebody the other day ask whether this is the future of opera, and no, it’s not the future of opera, but, there is certainly a very important and valid place for projects like this in the future of opera. The audience we have – before, they were a theatre-going audience, they’d go to the opera, or concert halls or the National Theatre, that’s what they loved to do, those people now watch content online; we would never have been able to convince them before this happened to sit on the sofa and log onto Youtube. They’d have said “No way i’m not watching an opera on a bloody computer monitor or TV!” – but now they do, and they are very willing to experience art in that way. We’d never have got this audience and we cannot now just say, “Oh, let them go, they’re not our audience.”

TA Being really candid, I applaud all the efforts there have been to put content online, but I struggle with work that has been designed for a live context, that has just been filmed and transplanted onto a screen; I think it’s partly because the exchange of live theatre is so specific, and so personal, that sense of being an individual and a collective in that specific space is really unique to being in a live venue, and i struggle with an art form where i ought to be able to choose where my focus is, or where the artistry of what’s onstage directs my focus but it’s still within my power to look to the right of the stage; I struggle with something that’s been edited which dictates what my focus is or where it should be.

This is precisely the issue I have with so many online broadcasts, that dictation of attention.

TA It’s a challenge. So I think what’s exciting about this is that it’s been specifically designed to be online only; you are not getting a diluted version, it’s its very own product. In terms of doing something else like this, I think we might be in this (pandemic) for some time, it will go up and down as the virus takes its course, so I think this is a way of letting this sort of work continue. I have yet to see anything that’s been made the way this has been made. I’ve seen other things that have been created as a film but i’ve not seen anything like this, and that’s quite exciting.

Whose idea was the green screen process? 

RH it was the biggest idea I wish I’d never had! (laughs) The big reason is that when you perform in front of a green screen to a mobile phone, it is exhausting, far more than anything else I’ve ever done. It is so draining, your energy has to be so focused and so high. And yes, because we can only use our household bubble, my partner Mark, he’s in quite a few of the scenes, he got roped into it, but said yes straight away. He had to learn choreography and all kinds of stuff. It was rather brilliant. The last project I did in the old world was in a production of The Duchess Of Malfi – I was the Duchess. I’d just done this massive Jacobean tragedy onstage and film acting as well, so I thought (in doing this), “Being in front of a camera will be a walk in the park compared to all that” but let me tell you: twenty minutes of green screen work is just as hard as a three-and-a-half-hour Jacobean tragedy.

TA My favorite moment of each day is when Rachael sends me the raw, behind-the-scenes, unedited footage, with she and Mark in a bit of costume doing this incredibly detailed movement work. It’s brilliant, it makes my day!

RH It’s at the stage now where we’re editing it and if we see something that doesn’t work me and my editor go, “Oh no, I know what you’re going to say, go put the costume on, do it again!”

shed, studio, green screen, VOPERA, Rachael Hewer, performance, theatre, creationAnd your studio is a little shed?

RH It’s a tiny little shed! We got green paper from the stationers, stuck it with glue onto cardboard, and nailed the cardboard onto the inside of the shed. Me and Mark cannot stand side by side in there, it’s that small, but people who watch will not know any of this.

So who will watch, do you think?

RH This is always the challenge with directing an opera: you have an audience that has every recording and they’ve come for a specific aria or singer, and then you’ve got another audience who’s never been to an opera before and it all sounds like screaming in another language. It’s impossible to cater for that range of people; it is a universal sort of timeless problem and challenge.

TA It’s a conversation that comes up so often in houses and with any kind of performing company in any structure, and the answer, I think, is it’s always about authentic storytelling. I think the stories you choose to tell then become important, people need to see and hear their own stories being told in the first person but some of opera is so fantastical and weird that nobody’s story is being told, yet you can find narratives that work, which are universal. I do believe in investing in new opera for that reason, but any conversation requires you to speak authentically, and to speak transparently, and to bring yourself to the conversation. With this production, everyone was so emotionally open throughout the whole process, so it’s an emotionally open and honest work, and the production is not only a response to the opera itself, but to the situation we find ourselves in now; it will speak to whoever shows up to it. There’s a job to do in terms of making people feel empowered to show up and feeling they can participate without excluding anyone else who’s showing up. I think it’s about authenticity of communication.

Berlin, classical, auditorium, performance, music, culture, stage, orchestra, performance

Essay: Exposure, Energy, Exchange, & Freebie Culture

Every morning amidst sips of strong coffee and self-exhortations related to baking (because a piece of good white bread, toasted, is suddenly so much work), I examine a raft of newly-arrived emails, skimming this one and that to distinguish the urgent from the not. Some of the messages contain links to videos, some feature video and audio material embedded within; some link to longer features at a formal website, some hold lengthy features within the boxy confines of the message itself, ribbons of rich text snaking down like bits of untidy morning hair scattered around shoulders, glinting in the morning sun. Some contain good news; most don’t. Another sip or two of coffee, a sigh, a look out the window, past the brick wall of a tiny garden to tree tops poking proudly up in the distance; the sight is a vital reminder to try and see a better, broader picture amidst the far more limiting and depressing immediate one. At certain times perspective is indeed the most vital thing – but sometimes it’s just as true that a bad view is simply a bad view, a bad location is a bad location, and that certain changes are quietly if firmly asking to be set in motion.

A favored activity of late is watching panels featuring  figures who are speaking outside of their immediate and respective comfort zones. One recent such event featured violinist Nicola Benedetti hosting classicist Mary Beard, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, and psychiatrist Raj Persaud; it was refreshing to experience such varied points of view about music and its effects; hearing Beard discuss Plato and his notions of music was a wonderfully bright bit of non-musicologist counterpoint. Another recent conversation featured conductor Alan Gilbert chatting with fellow maestro Herbert Blomstedt, a figure one might assume is not wholly used to speaking about music on Zoom. His jovial (and sometimes lengthy) hums of portions of Beethoven’s Third Symphony inspired, at the time of their delivery, a grab at the score off the shelf, and a mental note to devote energy to further examination – but oh, the humming was charming, a warm expression of humanity behind brilliance. I am presently looking forward to listening to Opera Holland Park’s Director of Opera, James Clutton, exchange views and insights with Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barrie Kosky. Such offerings, together with concerts broadcast on various international radio channels, have been effective at not only filling in various knowledge gaps, but in allowing a needed experience of community amidst the continued quarantine isolation resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s a great worth in to such activities, one which needs to be recognized, for the pseudo-normalcy such material provides is at once comforting and enlivening, even as concerts in certain locales, under strict conditions, continue to resume. The sound of applause in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche following Daniel Hope’s recent broadcast from the historical locale was gut-wrenching to hear through computer speakers, a happy if equally awful reminder of separation, communion, presence and absence, of a circle slowly being closed but revealing a yawning hole at its core, one that asks a nagging question: who’s being paid?

It’s a question being asked with more persistence as horrific economic realities settle in. Recently I took part in a Zoom conference which connected neurological reaction with online classical presentation, organized by the University of Oxford in collaboration with HEC Montréal (the graduate business school of the Université de Montréal). Numerous participants eagerly discuss their unique experiences (virtual and not) before discussion invariably turned to money: funding models, proper remuneration, the psychology inherent within the act of paying. One user subsequently commented that “I’ve found that I can really find any (event) online and for free, pre-recorded. However, I am much more likely to fully participate if I’ve had to pay a fee and strangely feel as if it’s of higher quality (untrue!). So that investment and ‘live’ element are crucial to me as a value indicator.” Observing the tide of rising doubt around online freebie culture has been interesting if somewhat painful, because it underlines the ugly and (for so long) taken-for-granted reality that writers, especially those with an arts beat, have faced for so long. My mother used to excoriate me for taking free work, when, still in my toddler-scribe stage, I would busily contribute to numerous large (and occasionally well-known) sites. “You’re giving away your talent,” she would say with exasperation, “to people who could well afford to pay you something. Just because they don’t know how to do business, you shouldn’t be the one helping them for nothing.” I would outwardly agree but feel inwardly trapped; was I really getting nothing? The choice between providing free work (which I wanted to believe opened a myriad of professional doors) or struggling in relative obscurity seems like a false one… and yet. The glittering of the promise of the internet, for a budding writer, depends so much on how willing one is to wade through a deep, dank swamp, for a very long time.

sculpture, fountain, satyr, spout, face, expression, carving, intensity

Water Spout Depicting Pan Or a Satyr, 2nd-3rd century AD, limestone; Altes Museum Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

That swamp became so deep through the immense devaluing of professional arts writing decades ago via the rise of digital and the related media/ad-tech/management decisions accompanying that ascent, decisions which still resonate and seem frustratingly entrenched within the media industry. As a writer, it’s terrible to feel consistently undervalued; it’s equally disheartening to continually donate your talent to large, faceless organizations without any form of reciprocal remuneration or recognition. I suspect, this is one reason why there are so many independent arts blogs in existence: people want an avenue for their passions, a place to share and sharpen and connect. The blogging world’s role and wider value within the classical ecosystem is a post for another day, but suffice to state here it is a world which bears contemplation, nay scrutiny, in direct relation to the concerns artists now express around the fairness (or not) of freebie culture. Awareness of individual value means retaining some measure of control over public offerings, which therefore necessitates the wilful exercise of choice in the implementation of remunerative properties. According to Buddhist belief, money is a form of energy, and as artists, it seems more important than ever to, as a 1996 article in Tricycle notes, “learn to ride this powerful energy, instead of being ridden by it.” I started this website in 2017 as a labour of love; its material, produced solely by yours truly, remains free for readers because it feels right to do so, as befits certain perceptions of me as an ambassador for music and the classical arts, which I am truly flattered by, but also take seriously. (Hopefully I don’t sound unbearably pretentious stating this.) I would far prefer to keep the unique value of that independence, in its myriad of forms, to myself, and carry my wonderfully faithful readership in that spirit, than give any bit of it (and me, and them) away.

carving, Thoth, baboon, scribe, god, work, writing, writers, discipline, sculpture, Egyptian

The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon, Egyptian, 1388-1351 BC, wood & serpentinite; Neues Museum Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

That means any residual anger at the boss is worked out in front of a mirror, and whatever exposure (that infamous word) I gain is that which I am able to fully control, measure, and reinvest in and around pursuits and goals related firmly to gaining a broader perspective, for me, for the artists who interest and inspire, and for readers. I realize this isn’t sexy to advertisers, much less large swathes of music lovers, very much less the intelligentsia-musicology crowd I confess to sometimes feeling I need validation from. (Newsflash: writers are insecure.) But if there is to be any momentum in the classical ecosystem now, it behoves all of us, at all levels, to start thinking more carefully about ideas around exposure, exchange, and innovation. The notion of “giving” exposure to artists who produce cultural material for wide consumption across digital platforms in lieu of payment, by large (or even not-so-large) organizations needs to be more broadly and boldly questioned, for it calls into consideration the whole idea of how we, individually and collectively, think of culture and its role in our lives. A powerful recent editorial in The Guardian and today’s dire (if not unexpected) announcement from The Met force issues of cultural value to the fore. Should we care about culture in a time of pandemic and suffering and social unrest? How much? Is culture (and its related written coverage) perceived as a leisure pursuit? An escapist activity? A pleasant diversion from Real Life? Should artists be giving songs, shows, concerts, ballets, paintings, plays, and poetry (writing) out of the sheer goodness of their hearts?

Amidst the sudden closures and cancellations that took place in March there was an intense whirlwind of sudden online activity and free offerings from classical artists, a panicked logic that shrieked the understandably obvious. Large outlets with paid models (The Met, the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper) were suddenly giving work away, standing, rather bizarrely, toe-to-toe with choirs and freelance musicians who were willingly performing from balconies, living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen tables, suddenly grappling with cameras, microphones, angles, lighting, and the interminable joys of uploading, trying to balance self-promotion with communal experience and needed connection while ensuring their presence in a piece of unprecedented history. There was a wonderful and refreshing underlining of personality in some quarters. Lisette Oropesa’s warm exchanges, and the vivacious work done by Chen Reiss (for online interview series Check The Gate), for instance, revealed them both to be the plain-speaking, earthy sopranos I conversed with in respective past chats. I suspect many classical artists enjoyed (or are still enjoying) the experience of a quite literally captive audience, a heady and unusual mix of accidental and intentional, and why not? In those early quarantine days, keeping access free was not only a nice gesture but vital for business.

Wigmore, auditorium, hall, performance, culture, music, London, intimate, venue

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

Nevertheless, with the current resumption of concerts in some places and continued quarantine in others, the virtual is becoming tied to the real, the fantasy of a past normalcy tied to current financial reality. Desperate times call for stark if/then mathematics: if you want this album, then pay for it. If you want that performance, then pay for it. Artists are realizing it can be difficult if not impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube once a precedent for free content has been established, with related expectations for its continuance. I strongly suspect certain events are about to have paid models applied to them, in various forms. Zoom conferences, like the HEC one I participated in recently, will, sooner than later, become paid events. Would I pay to watch/listen to a panel featuring Benedetti, Cargill, and Beard, or Maestros Gilbert and Blomstedt, or Clutton/Kosky? Yes. Wigmore Hall has just resumed weekday performances, with broadcasts (online, radio) in collaboration with BBC Radio 3, but one wonders what will happen after the end of June; will there be a paid model? The Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall has returned to its own subscription-based service, while many opera houses are currently offering limited-run broadcasts of past productions. One wonders about all the discussions taking place around offering new models that might allow greater user flexibility and personalization of (especially live) experience. Crow’s Theatre in Toronto recently offered a (delivered) gourmet dinner from a local restaurant with a live presentation of their theatricalized staging of Master And The Margarita, all for a set price; Tafelmusik has paired with a local gelateria for their at-home listening experiences. Conductor Vasily Petrenko, in the most recent edition of his (excellent) Lockdown Talks series, flat-out asks Jonathan Raggett (Managing Director of the Red Carnation Hotels chain) if he thinks a future partnership between orchestras and hotels might be possible in terms of chamber presentations in conference/ballrooms. Everyone is madly examining the possibilities of alternative revenue streams with this, the new normal of cultural presentation and experience, even as we try to absorb what feels, many days, like a never-ending stream of shock and sadness.

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At the Berlin Philharmonie. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

The ugly reality is, after all, that many outlets and individuals are facing bankruptcy. Nimbleness, while lovely as a concept, is not something easily, quickly enacted or adaptable to many lives, and exposure, or even its promise, does not (as so many writers know) pay bills/rent/mortgage, much less provide the stones that could line the pathways leading to such dreamed-of stability – but the promise of exposure is a terribly tempting, a solid-looking thing to hop on (equally so the “tip jar”) that is proving itself to be naught but a rusty anchor with one clear direction. The question remains: what are we willing to pay for? How does spending relate to the (vital, right now) notion of scarcity? What value do we place on the experience of community? It behoves artists to stop being squeamish about openly discussing proper remuneration, just as much as it behoves us to start considering the broader ecosystem that allows this form of energy to fully flow – an ecosystem that surely includes the written word as much as the sung note, as much as the open string, as much as the pressed valve and held tone. Certainly it can be intoxicating at seeing one’s work enjoyed and shared by many, in revelling in attention and praise; digital culture exacerbates this attachment, and indeed it is sometimes an energetic black hole of a swamp one might choose to never leave. But it is vital to know when one is able to walk on stilts, and to trot away proudly, not looking back.

Lately I have experienced tremendous doubts about this website’s continued existence, ones specifically tied to my overall worth as a writer. If I’m not getting paid by a big mainstream outlet, do I have any real worth? How can I possibly compete with intellectual types who have the backing of far larger organizations and fanbases? Do I have anything remotely worthy to contribute through my writing or other creative efforts? Would that feeling be altered were I to receive remuneration, or what might, in Buddhist terms, be called reciprocal energy? Should I cease public writing entirely? I keep looking  up to the treetops, trying to imagine a clearer, better view. Notions of worth, value, and self-doubt are things everyone in the classical world grapples with at the best of times. Perhaps more thinking, more coffee, and a higher pair of stilts are required. Perhaps it’s time to find a better view.

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Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone & Together

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh realities of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

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Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

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Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

Lisette Oropesa: “Context Is Everything As A Singer”

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Photo: Jason Homa

Lisette Oropesa is a woman with opinions. Over the course of a lengthy recent conversation, the Cuban-American soprano mused on everything from the challenges and joys of directors and conductors, to the pressures of being a woman in the opera and online worlds. She is every bit as bold and vivacious off the stage as she is on it.

The New Orleans native was a winner of the 2005 Met Opera National Council Auditions and joined the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, graduating in 2008. She made her Met stage debut in 2006 with Idomeneo (as Woman of Crete) and the following year, made her professional debut in a principal role, as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Since then, Oropesa has appeared on the Met stage in over one hundred performances in a wide array of roles, including Amore in Orfeo ed Euridice, Sophie in Werther, the Dew Fairy in Hänsel und Gretel, Gilda in Rigoletto, Woglinde in Das Rheingold, and as her namesake in La Rondine. She has also sung with an array of North American and European companies, including Opera Philadelphia, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Welsh National Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, and La Monnaie/De Munt, Bruxelles, as well as a numerous festivals including Glyndebourne, Arena di Verona, Savonlinna, Tanglewood, Ravinia, and the Rossini Opera Festival.

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As Norina in Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne, 2017. Photo: Bill Cooper

She’s worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Sir Anthony Pappano, Carlo Rizzi) and equally celebrated directors (David McVicar, David Alden, Damiano Michieletto, Claus Guth, Andreas Kriegenburg), and has performed most of the great bel canto roles (Donizetti’s Lucia, Adina, Norina) along with French (Meyerbeer, Massenet, assenet,  Thomas), Baroque (Handel, Gluck) and Verdian (Traviata, Rigoletto, Masnadieri) repertoire, as well as oratorio, recital, and concert work. Oropesa has also performed the role of Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction From The Seraglio), in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper (2017 and 2018) and will be appearing in the Mozart work again, at Glyndebourne next summer opposite Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala as Blonde. Next year sees Oropesa sings the role of Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia (at Opera Bastille) and will be giving a number of recitals and concerts across Europe, including an appearance at the Wexford Festival Opera. 

Amidst all of this (or perhaps to because of it), Oropesa is a devoted runner and an advocate of healthy eating; she has completed numerous marathons, even as she has also been vocal about the ongoing issue of body shaming in the opera industry. A recipient of both the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 Beverly Sills Artist Award and the 2019 Richard Tucker Award, her supple soprano is marked by an easy flexibility and incredible core of warm vibrancy that seems like a perfection reflection of her vivid personality. Those qualities were on full and lush display this past autumn when Oropesa appeared as the title role in Massenet’s Manon, in a revived production by Laurent Pelly. Opera writer Patrick Dillon wrote of her performance that “(t)he voice, with its seductive silvery glimmer, has enough colour to give it texture and depth and enough power to make Massenet’s musical points without straining.[…] She’s the finest Manon I’ve heard since the glory days of Beverly Sills.”

That isn’t to say Oropesa has been changed by fame – if anything, she’s one of the most upfront artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of conversing with. It’s rare and entirely refreshing to speak with someone so entirely, authentically themselves. Witty, original, passionate, with a ferocious intelligence and keen insight, it will be interesting to see where Oropesa goes in her career. This weekend (November 24th) she’s set to appear as Ophelia in an in-concert presentation of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet in Washington, before a return to the Met in February for Violetta in La traviata. We spoke just before the Tucker Awards ceremony in New York City last month.

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At the Richard Tucker Awards gala at Carnegie Hall, October 2019. Photo: Dario Acosta

What did you think when you learned of the Richard Tucker Award?

It’s pretty awesome, although it was a total surprise, like, “Really? are you guys sure?!” I always saw as a gift to somebody about to really take off, and I felt like I took off and never got the award – so I figured I was past it. They can only pick one year and there are so many singers having wonderful careers, I mean, they just have to get the right person at the right time. I’d already made debuts at the Royal Opera, La Scala, Paris, I’d been signing at the Met, and thought, “I’m too far in my career now.” Some said they felt I should’ve been given it before, but really, who’s to say it’s more overdue for me than for anyone else? Tons of brilliant artists deserve it – I wish they’d give ten awards instead of one, but it’s hard to raise the money.

What’s the benefit of receiving the award for you? 

Whenever I’m at home in the States, I teach and go to universities and I always talk about the business as it is right now, because (the students) get a perspective they don’t always get from their teachers or a traveling coach. Maybe eventually, when I exit performance, I will become a teacher because I really enjoy it. I was thinking about how to use the grant in the best way; it’s easy to say, “I’ll spend it on myself” but I’d really like to set up a scholarship at my school. I haven’t made any promises yet; I don’t want to anticipate something that isn’t necessarily going to work. I have all these ideas but $50,000 doesn’t go very far. 

The investment in a classical career is immense and long-term and doesn’t guarantee a payoff

Yes, and it’s very disheartening. You get to the point where you literally run out of money and you have to figure out what you’re going to do, and hope your parents or a rich patron will help you for those years of your career. In the middle you could have a slump too, initially doing well but then someone else comes along who has a whirlwind around them so you may lose work to another artist, or you may get pregnant and have to cancel a year and a half’s worth of engagements. I’ve never been pregnant, but I’d imagine deciding what to do in that situation is hard. I don’t have kids because it was never my calling to be a mother; I thought about it for five minutes. I thought, “If I want to do this and have a child, I can’t do both.” It’s an investment in my part. It may take away a certain aspect of my life, but I say “no” to this so I can say “yes” to that.

Women – especially female artists – can be held to a different standard, especially if they’re in the public eye in whatever capacity.

Right now, in the heat of the #MeToo movement, everyone thinks it’s just about harassment – that’s a big part of any industry and there’s no reason ours should be any different – but there’s more to it. We struggle with objectification, and yes, being held to a different standard. When you’re at a rehearsal and tossing out ideas to a basically all-male cast, you’re almost always in the minority as a female; the director is almost always male, the conductor almost always male, and you, as a female, have to assert yourself or completely do the “Yes sir, whatever you like” thing. It’s very tough, because when you want to say something or have an idea, you are perceived as a diva or a bitch; you’re considered “difficult.”

… because you’re not genuflecting. It takes a lot of confidence to pipe up; you feel very alone in a very entrenched culture that isn’t entirely conscious of its own architecture, and sometimes doesn’t want to be. 

Totally agree. I’ve never been harassed in the sense of, “if you don’t do this, you won’t get that” – the quid pro quo situation is not that common. But it’s the subtle things; they are real and happen all the time – the winks, the compliments, the “Sweetie, I love that dress on you” and “Damn, you look great in that low-cut blouse” and “You have such nice legs”… I’ve never thought of it as harassment in the sense of it making me feel miserable or bad about myself, but as women we get to the point of tolerance, so our threshold for that kind of thing is much higher.

I think it often has to be in order for us to function. The system has been set up so that a woman often can’t (or won’t) adjust that threshold of tolerance because of the related cost being too high.

Exactly. When you’re’ desperate and hungry, it’s different. And hey, I’ve seen and been in situations where I felt women were taking advantage – that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. I’ve also 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. And 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. We have new feminine power now that is intelligent, perceptive, open, emotional, clear – instead of this boring, age-old adage of, “I have big tits and a nice ass and that makes me powerful” – no, it means you have a certain body type, but that’s not your power. 

It’s power tied to male gaze. 

Yes, for sure.

It’s important to be cognizant of the fact that power greatly depends on the culture you’re operating in, and the ways an artist can sometimes be boxed in by old cultural definitions. Have you ever felt you were put on the spot in terms of being a cultural spokesperson? 

I think people have a need to label. They just do. I had this question the other day: “If you had to define your voice type, can you give me a word?” And I thought, hmmmm. People have a need to label, as with race and ethnicity and sexual orientation, everything has to be defined. Mine’s simple: both my parents are from Cuba. I spoke Spanish growing up. I’ve always said I was Cuban-American. It’s honorable. If they say, where are you from? I don’t take offense. I speak Spanish and have a Cuban accent when I do; I listened to Latin music and watched Latin TV growing up. People will go, “Oropesa, what is that?” It’s an honor to my parents and grandparents with whom I spoke only Spanish and I’m proud of it, but at the same time, does it make me a spokesperson for Latin-American singers? I don’t think of it as a negative thing. People have asked me if I think being Latin in the U.S. has helped me in some way, and yeah, actually I do think it helps, but it also helps that I look white! You can’t look too Latin. 

Jemaine Clement has said something similar, that “(a)s a pale-skinned Māori person, I felt like a spy as a kid.”

Yes, we “pass for white,” so to speak. Not all my family is like this; there’s a brown side. My grandmother is beige. My father was quite dark. I have one side very Barcelona European, so I have that look, but have another side with more beige, but I don’t care. I think it’s beautiful. we come in all colors of the rainbow, and can be whatever we choose to represent and put out there. 

People want to see a Hollywood representation of exactly the setting given by the composer, but the problem is, these operas have to be sung – they’re not paintings, they have to be performed by singers. And while it would be lovely as close to a racial dial as possible, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist at the time. When you think about how often people are putting on Aida… it’s put on everywhere, and there are not enough black Aidas in the world to go around! And it’s a problem for black singers; if you’re black, should you only sing black roles? If certain stories have race as an important aspect of the drama, then yes, either you get a black Aida, or you paint someone to look black, because if you make a white Aida then you’re not helping black singers, and you are making excuses for black singers not to get hired.

Russell Thomas said something very similar to me when he was in Toronto for Otello last winter. He said the character “just can’t be white—it doesn’t work dramaturgically” and if that does happen, then “minority artists will lose out every time.” 

It’s true. I have friends who have talked about this at length and I’ve spent time reading thousands of the threads about this, and they said, basically, that if you don’t paint Aida black, you’re painting the way for no more Aidas, and paving the way for fewer opportunities, because you’re cutting out a big piece of the pie. It would be like not making Porgy and Bess all-black. I wish there was blind casting. That’s how it was when I played the flute – it was behind a curtain, no one could see!

When I spoke with Lucia Lucas earlier this year, she said the same thing about blind auditions. But some people say they need to see how a performer moves, their expressions, if they have a certain presence.

That’s what opera has that other art forms don’t have: the musical aspect and the dramatic aspect. It’s that combination, and it’s why singers have to look a certain way. Either you live in it or you don’t. It’s complicated, because we want to say these issues exist but we don’t get to the point where we’re censoring opera and ignoring race and acting like its not important or not valid; we don’t want to get the point where we’re rewriting operas and censoring them. We want these pieces to stand as representations of what was happening at the time. Yes it’s hard to see some of these works, but this is why theatre is exciting. We want to be part of it, but if we go too far in one direction, the backlash is a swing to the other direction, and that’s a problem.

Good directors can sometimes inspire a reconsideration of a piece within the broader context of the issues you mention. What’s been your experience?

I’ve done two productions with Claus Guth – for the first, I jumped in at the last minute for his Rigoletto-in-a-cardboard-box, which I thought was brilliant. I learned it in one day! His assistant was incredible; she answered all these questions I had, and was great to work with. I did his production of Rodelinda in Barcelona as well, and he came toward the end and shared a lot of things. For one character, he’d envisioned and staged him to have a limp and an eyepatch and to walk with a cane; he was the bad guy. When Claus came to rehearsals, he saw the guy singing that role (bass-baritone Gianluca Margheri) was gorgeous and buff, and just was not believable as this hunched-over, weak, bad guy with a chip on his shoulder, so Claus re-staged the entire role. I thought, wow, it takes a lot for a director to do that! Not all of them will – they’ll say, “Sorry, you don’t fit my vision!” and make you feel like shit, or fire people. Sometimes they’ll say, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you fit?!” and it almost never ends well.

The super-successful directors are so busy and they can’t be everywhere, and Claus is a good example of that. For this Met production of Manon, I never got to meet (its director) Laurent Pelly, but I worked with his assistants. If Laurent had been there, he might’ve made changes – the original singer (for the production) was Netrebko, and we couldn’t be more different, but assistants aren’t authorized to change costuming or stage traffic What do directors do? Everything, from ruining things you want to do, to bringing out the best in you to make you think or sit back and let you stage yourself. Everyone is different.

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As Rodelinda (with Gianluca Margheri as Garibaldo) at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2019. Photo: A. Bofill

That echoes a singer’s relationship with a conductor, which can be even more intense.

It certainly helps to have a good first few rehearsals. If they rip into you initially, they’re asserting their authority and I’ve learned to sniff that out and not take it personally, but a conductor who is willing to listen to your ideas without you having to spell them out all the time is nice; a conductor who is willing to lead when they have to lead, and follow when they have to follow is even better. Some only lead, some only follow, and there’s a valid place for both.

I like being led by a conductor when I’m doing something I really know well. When I could roll out of bed sick and sing it no matter what, I’m happy to have them lead and do what they want; if I’m doing a role I need help with, to ease me in some places and push me in others, then I like to lead, and that’s there’s lots of subtle things with that. There are also the ones who don’t listen, or don’t follow, or know when to follow, or they insist on leading even though they know you’re not following them, or they don’t perceive you are struggling; there are some who aren’t perceptive, and that only comes with musical sensitivity. 

I’ve had experiences where I’ve thought the conductor hated me for weeks, and then the production turns out to be a huge success, but it’s usually because I’m on my toes and scared to do anything wrong, and in the end it meshes together. And the audience doesn’t know what happens before – they don’t care if you’ve been through six months or hell with this guy, and they go, “Oh wow, so beautiful! What a wonderful collaboration!” and you think, my God, you have no idea.

Opera is an art of true collaboration – do you find the nature of those collaborations change over time? I would imagine the nature of  collaboration changes depending on the context in which it unfolds.

Context is everything as a singer; it’s probably more important than anything else. The next biggest thing is your preparation. You can bring all the preparation in the world: you will get there, and the conductor will be difficult, the director will be challenging, your colleagues you may not mesh with, you might have a theatre that does not support your rehearsal process, you might have a coach who make you do different things than you want, you may find your costumes uncomfortable… this is all the stuff audiences don’t know or understand. They’re at the end of the marathon waiting for you to finish; they don’t see when you fell and what it took to get there. It’s why you have to be a very strong person.  Your audience may start shooting bullets and they may feel entitled to like what they saw – they paid a lot to see it – and they’ll throw a lot at you, and you have to process that. Most of us try to improve and keep going through the run. Your heart has to be protected.

Part of that is context involves social media. You have said you try to minimize technological interaction; how do you balance an authentic portrait as an artist and keeping up engagement?

soprano backstage singer vocal opera Lisette Oropesa Amsterdam mirror reflection fashion

Backstage at Concertgebouw Amsterdam during a 2015 in-concert performance of Rigoletto. Photo: Steven Harris

I control all of my social media – it is completely organic and controlled by me and my husband. Steven’s a web developer so I’m lucky, and he’s smart about the right kind of posts, making sure the information is on there, and the cast is there too, so you’re getting information and the right content, and he’ll run things by me first. If I want to write a message, he’ll come to me, and then we’ll share ideas. I try to engage everyone and respond to comments. I don’t get to all of them, but try to say “thank you.” I get a lot of sweet messages on social media and I don’t want people to feel they’re not being heard.

As far as Instagram goes; it has a stupid algorithm. If you want to get on the feed you have to post a lot, and always post those thirsty photos, but there’s also a psychological element. If Stephen and I go to pick a photo for Instagram, he’ll look through my pictures and say, “Well, people tend to stop on photos of faces, so if you have one of your face, let’s use that.” So even if I feel like I want to post a great photo of a flower or a sunset, I know it won’t get as much traction – I mean, sure, you can do it for yourself, but if you want to reach more people, you have to find things the algorithm supports. It’s artificial but the platform wants you to be somehow authentic.

A pastiche of authenticity…

Right, “authentic”… then it becomes that old idea of power we discussed. I feel sorry for girls who have that look because they learn early on in life, “Here’s my currency; this is my only currency” and they market themselves as that, and then in opera, it’s almost an afterthought: “Oh, and I just happen to have a voice.” I’m the girl who always grew up overweight and never popular, so I see it from a distance; it must be so hard to keep up. What happens when it fades? In ten years or less another one will take the place of this girl; it’s so short-lived. You may make a crap ton of money, retire early – who knows? – I feel like it’s a shame, that age-old trope of “beauty = value” because it pressures who who aren’t so beautiful and sends a message of, “you’re secondary in importance because you don’t have that one thing.”

It also entrenches old definitions of beauty, because “beautiful” … according to whose rules? There are many people who don’t fit that old definition, and so what? Opera is well-positioned to challenge precepts, as Kathryn Lewek did. It can’t exist to entrench old ones; it needs to destroy and rebuild them into something more accurately revealing and reflecting our world, or so I want to believe.

soprano singer vocal opera Lisette Oropesa Manon stage Met NYC performance

As Manon at the Metropolitan Opera, 2019. Photo: Marty Sohl

“Beautiful” is so much about perception. Some people think Claus’s productions are beautiful, some think they’re ugly and dark. I have learned so much doing Manon in terms of all this. After we opened, I read the reviews and feedback, and a lot of the things I read were negative, the gist being that I am not sexy enough to play her, I’m not beautiful enough to play her, I’m not convincing as the object of every man’s desire – I read pretty much that exact quote. And that really hurt. 

Yes, there is a world in which Manon is just a man-eater, but there’s also a world in which Manon has something about her, like, it’s not that she’s the most obviously gorgeous woman physically, but the fact she’s mysterious, she’s fun, she has something about her. It’s hard for some to accept that. There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!” I used to think of myself as very ugly, and that child is still inside. When I think I’ve gone to all this trouble to be confident in my appearance so my body and voice could finally match, and people are still going, “Oh even at a size 4 she’s not hot enough” I think, fuck this, I’m going back to eating ice cream! 

It’s vital those definitions be remade, especially in an art form notoriously adverse to change.

I never tell young singers they need to lose weight. Never. That person may go do it and still not be hot enough for somebody – if you’re going to do it, do it for your health, but do not do it for your career. It won’t change anybody’s perspective of you. You can be cute in a size 16 or a size 2. If you want to force yourself into sexiness, fine, but accept who you are. Some people don’t think I’m a sexy Manon and I just feel like…  that’s not who I am. 

soprano singer vocal opera Lisette Oropesa Munich stage performance Bayerische Staatsoper Les Indes Galantes

As Hébé in Les Indes Galantes at Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016. Photo: W. Hösl

Again, “sexy” according to whom? There are these very conventional ideas that Carmen has to be hot, Manon has to he hot, Violetta has to be hot – who gets to decide what is “hot”?  I want to believe some will feel a woman being her authentic self is more attractive and desirable, onstage or off.

Carmen is a perfect example! It is the most stereotypical concept to approach it as,  “she has to be this hot woman, it’s the only way she’s believable!” – and the same with Manon, this attitude of, “she has to be the woman des Grieux would give up his life for.” So she has to look like Kim Kardashian?” It makes him look stupid. It makes him look shallow. Then you make her shallow, and people hate her even more. I mean, yes, Manon is an opera about a selfish bitch, and people can’t handle that, they want to see a victim, someone pliable,a woman who’s willing to please. But it’s also why people argue about opera – I’ve never seen more polarizing perspectives than in doing this opera.

I think of Natalie Dessay, who I love and who is not conventionally beautiful but my God, you couldn’t take your eyes off her! And she didn’t pose her way through a role, ever; she wasn’t standing on stage posing this way and that. That’s the example that needs to be out there, because that’s the kind of artistry I want to see in the world, for women and men alike.

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