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Waldemar Januszczak: Telling Stories Of Art “In Ways That Connect With People’s Lives”

Waldemar Januszczak, art, Michelangelo, Sky Arts, writer, broadcaster, host, documentary, culture, The Times, Polish

The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel was broadcast on Sky Arts in April 2021.

Among the many unexpected delights of lockdown life has been the opportunity to connect with people from the worlds of media and culture, and sometimes, the two combined in one. Waldemar Januszczak is art critic for The Sunday Times as well as a documentary maker with numerous television specials to his name. Those programs, which have been produced for over two decades, reveal immense curiosity for the ever-evolving, all-encompassing universe of culture, and each is presented with humour, gusto, and incredible if equally approachable intelligence. Waldy, as he’s known online and through his entertaining podcast with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, first came to my notice in 2015; though I’d read his work for years, it was Waldy’s four-part series on the so-called Dark Ages that caught my attention. Broadcast on a local channel across four Monday evenings at the height of summer, the series (from 2012) came at a particularly challenging time that year, having lost my mother in July and endured severe illness and multiple surgeries on my own before and after that. The nagging questions, in both personal and professional spheres, of who I was without the central figure of my music-loving mum loomed extraordinarily large; I would stare at the works of Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo in books and online for hours, trying to glean some sense of order (beauty seemed too far-off and impossible to hope for), some sense of understanding, to a world rendered hazy, tilted, skewed, strangely airless. I would go to my own easel and try to draw or paint; I would sit at the computer, and no words would come. Who was I, outside of being this person’s daughter? Who was I, outside of this prison of a body I felt trapped in? Who was I, with these hands, which held my mother’s as she passed away, which held pencils and brushes, which typed out so very many words-words-words that seemed to affect no one and nothing at all?

Waldy’s work – his friendly presentational style, his enthusiasm, his clear thirst for knowledge – helped provide some clues. The full  of the series (The Dark Ages: An Age Of Light) was precisely the feeling imparted through the experience of watching the series at that point in time. It was as if a great spotlight was being shone on not only early Christianity and the Middle Ages, or indeed its related iterations, forms, and expressions, but along the way I, myself, was experiencing history and related notions of darkness, light, and all manner of shade and shadow between. By showing a new way to look at the past, the series, and Waldy’s work more broadly, provided an inspiring way of perceiving present and possible futures. The approach the writer/filmmaker takes to his work (one which, as I said at the start, blends smarts, humour, knowledge, and approachability) makes him a natural storyteller. Starting out at the University of Manchester as a student in art history, Waldy went on to become art critic, and subsequently arts editor of The Guardian. He worked in a variety of capacities across the BBC, and has, according to his own (quite humorous) biography, “since popped up pretty much everywhere where a radio dial can reach.” In 1989 he became commission editor for arts at Channel 4 (a time, which, he explains, was immensely fruitful in terms of providing future inspiration to his own broadcasting pursuits), and in 1993 also was put in charge of music at the channel, and subsequently began annual broadcasts from Glyndebourne – not to mention a little festival called Glastonbury.

That same year saw him become art critic for The Sunday Times, where he has been ever since. Twice voted Critic Of The Year, he co-curated a show at the British Museum in 2008 where modern and ancient sculptures were shown side by side, inspired by his own series on sculpture from four years earlier. Making films since 1997 with his own company, ZCZ Films, Waldy’s artistic explorations have been wide-ranging and ambitious: countries (Japan, Kazakhstan, America), concepts (politics, night), artists (Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo), religio-historical depictions (Mary Magdalene), and eras (the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo). Along with writing about contemporary art issues, including pieces on art collectives, the creative and spiritual meeting in abstraction (specifically the work of Hilma af Klint;  both March 2021), the Turner Prize, the symbolic power of a show focused on textiles (both May 2021), and how COVID has changed the art world (January 2021), Waldy has also written touchingly personal pieces – about the father he never knew, and about his battles with weight. Those writings are sincere and visceral, but they bear no trace of the sort of overwrought sentimentalities which so often characterize such works in the digital era; rather, they are the rich and (more than occasionally) spicy ingredients which constitute a person who is unafraid to be his own culture-loving, knowledgeable, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, unpretentious, immensely real self.

Such qualities may go a ways in explaining his presence on this website, for while Waldy does not work in opera, he embodies the very qualities so vital to the classical world, especially at this point in history. I referenced his work last year in an essay, and I’ve come to feel in the time since that his is a presence and a talent wholly needed, as various cultural worlds move away from lockdown status and toward some kind of normalcy. For while brilliance  does indeed hold a place in the classical world, authenticity, compassion – humanity – matters more, in this, our brave (and hopefully better) new world. We connected on Twitter (very brave new world indeed), over what I seem to recall was my love of the work of performance artist Ulay. (If you know of and/or like the work of Marina Abramović but have never heard of Ulay… please amend; his work holds extraordinary significance and beautifully poetic power.) Amidst the variety and ambition of Waldy’s pursuits, it seemed important to ask him, first and foremost, what he thinks of himself as: writer or broadcaster? His answer wasn’t particularly surprising, but his warmth and good humour, which carried throughout the course of our near-half-hour exchange, was a welcome and hopeful sign for post pandemic culture, and the people who love it.

You balance writing with broadcasting and documentary-making, but I’m curious what you call yourself.

An art critic, that’s what I’d like written on my grave. But right from the beginning, I’ve managed to do two things at once. When I was younger I was a student in Manchester, and I did this thing for radio, a student’s hour – I got roped into it – and someone at the BBC heard it, so I got working on the BBC doing a radio program when I was still a student, and it was out of pure luck. At the same time I was writing for Time Out; I’d do things for them and someone from The Guardian came across it and asked me to apply to them, so to cut a long story short, I’ve always done broadcasting and always done writing and the two have managed to keep going in parallel all the way through. I’m very lucky, and I made a step into television, but what I really like is looking at art and writing about it, which is what being a critic is – it’s not about being right or wrong with your opinions; you simply want to look at art, and to write about it.

Your integration of education and entertainment feels natural without being reductive.

I’ll put it simply: I’m an art lover. From my earliest memory, anything joyful involved cutting out pictures of famous paintings and pasting them, in my little cubby hole I had under the stairs – I’d paste stuff on the wall. I’ve always taken great pleasure from looking at art. I don’t understand why everyone else in the world isn’t that excited about art – it baffles me. In the UK we have these nature programs and people are happy to watch two frogs having sex or see beautiful butterflies in the air, or whatnot, for literally hours on end – millions will watch that – but put on something about a Raphael painting, which is also a thing of great beauty, or something about a sculpture by Bernini, or some great piece of architecture, and they tune out in the millions. I just don’t get it. It’s been this battle, always for me, to try and bridge that gap, to try and share this idea that art is interesting, exciting, and above all, a human achievement. It is my mission to try and tell stories of art in ways that connect with people’s lives. That’s all I ever tried to do. I don’t set out to be an original thinker necessarily, or to be necessarily different, I just set out with the firm belief that everybody should be able to talk about art in ways that involve or interest them, and that communication about it is what counts.

I like how you pull things away from being purely academic into a very direct and often sensuous relationship with art. I might be daunted by the artists and their related histories but watching your stuff, I don’t feel daunted at all.

That’s a real compliment, thank you. I’m so glad to hear that, because that is what I want to do. Many years ago now I did have a job in formal television, I was the commissioning editor for music and art programming at Channel 4. So for the eight years I was there, I commissioned other people to make art programs, and I watched what they did and how they did it. And I became more and more determined and experienced in the field myself, and determined to not do what they did. The thing I least like in any kind of writing about, or making films about art, is what you’re talking about, this sense of art being something difficult, some kind of homework, that not everybody can get or understand. A lot of the language of documentary filmmaking emphasizes that aspect, with these added tropes: the music that isn’t very cheerful or it is atonal and difficult; there is speaking about stuff in ways that don’t really mean anything – if people don’t know what they really want to say, they usually use twenty words instead of one, because it creates an illusion of knowledge, authority, and experience. So when I gave up being a manager of other people’s work and began making my own documentaries again, I made rules; there were things I knew I wanted to do, and those rules are all to do with this thing you’re talking about. I want people to learn stuff and enjoy it – I’m not there to preach or look down on them if they don’t know something. It’s been the experience of watching other people do this that has driven me to that.

But you combine this knowledge with your strong personality – I wonder how much that draws people in, so it’s not solely “Oh, a doc about the Renaissance” but “Oh, Waldy is presenting a doc on the Renaissance…” 

I think one of the things is, I’m Polish, I’m not English, as you can tell from my name, and we’re a different breed you know? Polish people are not like English people; we have a different way of speaking and expressing ourselves. And in television and the BBC especially, there’s a very specific type of person that works there, fits into that culture, and succeeds, and someone like me comes along, and I’m the other, I’m different in almost every way. One of my sins is I like eating, a lot, so I’m chunky, and in television, especially these days, you don’t see chunky people, they go for the slim, pseudo-intellectual from Cambridge, so I stuck out there, because I am different and I’m not afraid. And, I think I’m confident in my knowledge. That’s one thing I can say of myself: I love art so much I’m constantly researching it, seeing it, loving it, and if you’re confident in your knowledge there’s nothing to be afraid of. So I try to find new ways of delivering material. I’ve always wanted to do that.

What I’ve noticed is that people remember things from the films, and what they remember surprises me often. In one of the things I made years ago, about the Baroque, there’s a scene where I’m looking at a ceiling in Rome, and I decided to do the camera shot lying on my back, because that’s the only way to look at it. If you want to see it properly, you lie on your back. It was a BBC series, and all the BBC people said, “You can’t lie on your back, you have to stand up and look authoritative on television!” So there are these funny things that do tend to bother some people but they’re not done for gimmicky reasons, I do them because I want to convey my excitement and experience in looking at stuff.

But that humanizes the art in the process, and that’s what is so often needed in the culture world. But it’s questionable if that style is supported by the people in charge…

That’s the point, yes – and arts programming does not get enough support anywhere. It’s a hard graft, getting the commissioning to do stuff. You know, I can’t tell you how many programs I’d love to be making right now; we don’t get the numbers to compete with the shows like reality television or the cooking shows, we don’t get the numbers they do because partly, in the past, arts programs have presented themselves as this thing you referenced, and that put a lot of people off. That’s a hard history to shift – a lot of people remember this sense of being talked down to, boringly, and they don’t want to see that. Of course what we want is everybody dying to turn on the television to watch, but it’s a tough ask because of that history; when you say something is “arty” there’s’ an awful lot of people who turn off, immediately. That word alone puts them off, and it’s one of the battles.

But do you think that tide might change now?

I’d like to hope so. I don’t know! I’ve not had a chance to find any evidence yet, but I do think the pandemic is having and will have a profound impact on the future, and I think it will be very hard to unlearn the joy of being at home and to not be imagining things for yourself. The pleasures we’ve had from this situation – as terrible as it’s been – have been things relating to people being in the position of having the time to examine the basics. And they’ve found new outlets for their attention, whether through television or podcasts or whatever. My own podcast, we only did it initially to do something during lockdown, but loads of people have said they’ve enjoyed it, so there is hunger for art, and an opportunity to take advantage of that hunger, but whether broadcasters will help us out with that is another question; they are not interested in changing the way people think about art, they have other fish to fry. But I’m optimistic.

One good thing is that my work has reached a much wider audience and that’s not to do with Covid, but the way television has gone everywhere with the preponderance of satellite channels. It used to be the only people who recognized me in the street were people who watched the BBC, but in the time when things eased between lockdowns last year, I remember going out and there were about sixty South Korean people who came rushing toward me in the street shouting, “Hey Waldemar!” They’d seen me on television there. So the international aspect of all that (interest) was very encouraging. I have a theory that in every country there are a million people who might be interested in art who, years ago, you had no chance of speaking with, but now there’s a chance, so add a million people up in every country – and that’s a lot of people interested in art. That’s encouraging.

And you have an audience on Twitter

I love Twitter – you hear other voices there. And the best thing about it is the reactions! For all we know, no one will ever read what I write formally, but on Twitter, people get back to you, and I love a good argument; I’ll argue with anyone, anywhere, on Twitter or elsewhere for that matter. So I’ve found (social media) fruitful. Some things I’ve done have been so pleasing. During the lockdown I ran this art thing with kids; people did homeschooling when the schools were closed, and, well, what could be more homeschooling-esque than art, really? People were drawing away, and so I’d set them little tasks, and there were these fantastic responses, they were really pleasing, these kids, 8, 7, 6 years old, drawing away and sharing their work. The other day we had David Hockney on the podcast and he said something wonderful: “why would anybody not want to draw? Try telling a 3 year-old kid not to draw!” It’s a thing we all have; everybody has that instinct, and so I had this forum where kids could express that during lockdown.

I loved that series (as did many), especially as someone without kids. That series was actually the point where I lost my patience with people who dismiss social media; for some of us, that’s the only way we can see that kind of thing. It’s our window on a different world.

Well gosh, you’d be horrible not to like this kind of thing, and to just dismiss it because of where you saw it! And it’s worth remembering that so many artists have nourished themselves on memories of childhood as well, and that Twitter is a great vehicle for expressing and sharing that sort of stuff. If you’re someone who comes up with lots of ideas, it can be a great forum for expressing them, and for promoting them. I find it very alive. With all these hours of daytime we had because of the pandemic, a lot of times in the day, you’d be in the office, alone, twiddling thumbs; you’d go on Twitter and find someone to talk to. I’d see these nice people writing in from Scotland and Australia and New Zealand, and that (experience of communication) was liberating and very pleasing.

It’s how we connected too! I want to feel reading your various exchanges makes me a slightly smarter person. 

You’re pretty smart as it is, so don’t worry about that! I’m so pleased we’ve connected, and with others too, I’ve done so much during lockdown. It’s nice to talk. That’s what it’s about.

How has all this connecting online changed your approach to your work, or… has it?

I don’t know how much it’ll change my approach in terms of my bread and butter work with The Times – with that, I do what I always do: see shows and write about them. But I have made a lot of new friends. One thing that Twitter is really good at is supplying you with information: you ask a question, you get a lot of responses. I had a film about Michelangelo on Sky Arts out recently and posted something relating to obscure arguments about biblical translations – the kind of stuff no one is into except me and a few biblical scholars, or so I thought! – and got so many responses from so many people. It was such fantastic information! You have to be really in the world of bible studies to know about these things, but it was so exciting to learn these things. So it can be a fantastic forum for education, for all of us, and more broadly, I think it’s given lots of silver linings to this terrible, terrible time, which we are now hopefully coming out of.

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Personal Essay: Curiosity In The Time Of Corona

records, album, vinyl, selection, covers, music, listen

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Over the past month I’ve found myself strongly gravitating to things that satisfy my curiosity and simultaneously whet it further, amidst grappling with memories of cultural restriction. Such limits, imposed by an opera-loving mother, manifest themselves in the comfortably familiar, a tendency experienced as an adult amidst periods of non-travel (i.e. now).  The dynamic tension between familiar ephemerality (laziness calling itself comfort) and explorations into the unfamiliar (sometimes difficult; always rewarding) has, over the past five weeks, become increasingly exhausting to manage. I try to ride the tension even as I make attempts to be less harshly judgemental toward myself in enjoying cat gifs/Spongebob Squarepants/Blazing Saddles alongside the work of Ludmila Ulitskaya/Moomins/Andrei Rublev. There may be room for both, but I’m also determined not to let laziness squash curiosity, a curiosity I frequently had to fight to defend and cultivate.

That curiosity has found wonderful exercise in select digital work. Sir Antonio Pappano exudes (as I have noted in the past) a natural warmth as befits someone who once hosted a four-part series for the BBC exploring classical music history through the lens of voice types“What potential for a great opera!” he exclaims of a motif from Peter Grimes he’s just played on the piano, closing his latest video for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of which the eminent maestro is Music Director. Amidst the recent glut of online material, this particular video was, when I first viewed it, a pungent reminder of my incomplete musical past, one that firmly did not feature the music of Benjamin Britten. My Verdi-mad mother would make a sour face if she happened to see the Metropolitan Opera or, closer to home, the Canadian Opera Company, was to feature certain operas (i.e. Peter Grimes, Wozzeck, Lulu) as part of their respective seasons. “That isn’t music,” she’d snarl, turning on the old stereo, where the voice of Luciano Pavarotti would invariably be heard, singing “Celeste Aida”, “La donna è mobile”, or any other number of famous arias. “That is music.”

mother child retro vintage meal memories

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Highly wary of anything perceived as too intellectual, my mother’s feelings (a word I use purposely) about what constituted good music were tied to traditional ideas about art from her being raised in a conservative time and place, in 1940s-1950s working-class Canada. I wasn’t aware of the influence of these things growing up; I only felt their effects, and strongly, for a long time. One feature of childhood is, perhaps for some more intensely than others, the desire for parental approval. Only in youth does one become better acquainted with a burgeoning sense of self that might exist outside so-called realities presented (and sometimes forcefully maintained) by parents. That I did not grow up with the music of Benjamin Britten, or Berg or Schoenberg or Shostakovich, nor distressingly large swaths of Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, or very much besides, is a source of continual bewilderment, frustration, and occasional shame, feelings more pronounced lately within an enforced isolation. There’s much to learn; sometimes catching up feels overwhelming, impossible.

Many of those feelings are owing to a restrictive and very narrow childhood musical diet consisting largely of what might be termed “The Hits” of classical music. “Things you can hum to!” as my mother was wont to say; the worth of a piece of music, to her mind, lay largely here. Many may feel this is not such a bad thing, and that to criticize it is to engage in some awful form of classical snobbery; I would beg to differ. It’s one thing to enjoy something for its own sake, but it’s another to feel that’s all there is, and moreover, to dismiss any other creative and/or historical contextualizing and to belittle related curiosities. (“You’re ruining the enjoyment,” was a phrase commonly heard in my youth (and beyond), another being: “Just enjoy it and stop picking things apart!”) Being raised around the work of Verdi, Puccini, Offenbach, and Bizet, and equally famous voices (i.e. Callas, Gobbi, Di Stefano, Corelli) set me on the path I now travel, and I’m grateful. I must’ve been one of the only suburban Canadian teenagers in the late 1980s and early 1990s to have seen Pavarotti, Freni, and Hvorostovsky live (and more than once) – but it’s frustrating not to be able to remember those performances in detail, and to not know who was on the podium, or who directed and designed those productions. Blame cannot be entirely laid at my mother’s (perennially high-heeled) feet; responsibility must surely be shared with young music instructors who, probably not unlike her, simply did were not in possession of the tools for knowing how to engage and encourage a big curiosity in a small person. 

Anyone who has been through the conservatory system in Canada might be familiar with the sections that were required as part of their advancing in grade books. During the years of my piano study, they were (rather predictably) chronological – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – with selections from each to be played at one’s yearly (entirely terrifying) exams. To my great surprise, I found I not only had an intuitive knack for playing the work of modern composers, but enjoyed the experience. This happy discovery coincided, rather unsurprisingly, with my teen years, though I barely understood basic elements like chord progressions, resolutions, polyphony, dissonance – these things remained largely unexplained, unexamined notions, big words dribbled out in half-baked theory classes. I played triads and diminished 5ths and dominant 7ths, but I couldn’t tell you what they meant, why they were used, or how they related to the composition and its history.

Still, I realized on some intuitive level, and partly through direct experience playing those modern works, that there was an entire cosmos I was missing. Exposure to world cinema confirmed that feeling, and led me to sounds that opened the door of discovery slightly wider; from there were trips to the local library for cassette rentals. Winter months found me alone in my bedroom, sitting on the floor, listening to the music of Prokofiev coming through my soup-can-sized headphones. This was definitely not Peter And The Wolf (which I’d loved as a small child), and though Cinderella was welcome… what would my mother make of Ivan the Terrible? Was it acceptable to play Queen’s “We Will Rock You” right after The Lieutenant Kijé Suite, or or George Michael’s “Faith” right before Alexander Nevsky? Did it make me awfully stupid and shallow? Did my intense love of dance music diminish or besmirch my desire to learn about what felt like its opposite? Was I not smart enough to understand this music? Was I always going to find certain works  impenetrable? Should I stick with the tuneful things my mother would swoon over every Saturday afternoon?

Rather than resolve any of this, I stopped playing the piano. For years I had been wheeled out like a trained monkey to entertain adults, and I yearned for cultural pursuits I could call my own. My intense love of theatre and words took over my once-passionate music studies, eventually manifesting in writing, publishing, producing, and performance. The irony that my return to music came through these very things is particularly rich, if also telling. Writing about music, examining libretti, observing people, listening to dialogue sung and spoken, meditating on how various aspects of theatre transfer (or don’t) to an online setting, contemplating audience behaviours and engagements with various virtual ventures that move past notions of diversionary entertainment and ephemeral presentation – these are things which awaken, inspire, occasionally infuriate but equally fascinate. In watching Pappano’s Peter Grimes video, I recalled my experience of seeing it performed live in-concert at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest last autumn (in a driving presentation by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra and Radio Academic Choir led by Paul Daniel), and to what extent my mother might have judged my enjoyment of that experience. I’m grateful to artists who whet my curiosity, replacing the comfortably familiar with the culturally adventurous.

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Violinist Daniel Hope (Photo: Nicolas Zonvi)

Violinist Daniel Hope excels at this. As well as performing as soloist with numerous orchestras from Boston to Tokyo to London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, Hope is also the Music Director of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (in San Francisco), and Artistic Director of the historic Frauenkirche Cathedral in Dresden. In this, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, he also assumed a rather special role, that of President of the Beethovenhaus Bonn. He possesses a fierce commitment to new music. Hope’s current online series, Hope@Home (presented with broadcaster Arte), is recorded live in his living room in Berlin and has become something of an online smash since its debut in March, with over a million views on YouTube. The smart daily program offers a varied array of offerings, which, over the course of 30 episodes so far, have offered performances presented within a smart context of either personal memories or well-known anecdotes (or sometimes both), creative pairings, and affecting readings, not to mention an unplanned appearance by his Storm Trooper-masked children at a recent episode’s close. Many of the works featured on Hope@Home are reductions from their orchestral counterparts, in adherence to social distancing rules, with Hope, pianist Christoph Israel, and (or) guests performing at appropriate distances. Touching but never saccharine, the program frequently enlightens on both verbal and non-verbal levels, hinting at the alchemical trinity of curiosity, communication, and reciprocity that exists as part-and-parcel of music – indeed art  itself – any and everywhere, in any given time, pandemic or not. 

Hope’s guestlist has been engagingly eclectic, with  figures from a variety of worlds, including director Robert Wilson giving an extraordinarily moving reading of an original work set to Hope’s intuitively delicate performance of the famous “Spiegel im Spiegel”, the utterly delightful actor Ulrich Tukur, who, in his second appearance recently, exchanged lines with Hope himself in a touching performance of the final scene of Waiting for Godot. Equally powerful was an earlier episode with director Barrie Kosky which featured a poignant reading from Joseph Roth’s novel The Hotel Years, preceded by the Komische Oper Berlin Intendant dedicating the reading to those who might be quarantining alone. (I shed a few tears of gratitude at hearing Kosky’s words; the experience of being seen, however figuratively, right now, cannot be underestimated.) Another recent episode featured a very moving musical partnership between Hope and pianist Tamara Stefanovich (and later featured baritone Mattias Goerne), while another found Hope reminiscing about his experience of knowing and working with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. A regular feature includes Hope’s sharing videos of musicians performing together yet separate from various organizations; one such share was a stunning performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil by the Netherlands-based choir Groot Omroepkoor. There’s a real understanding and love of the larger cultural ecosystem on display here, one that betrays a great understanding of the ties binding music, theatre, literature, and digital culture together. That understanding was highlighted with memorable clarity for Hope@Home’s 30th episode, which heavily featured Russian repertoire. The stirring combination of elements in the episode, which featured the music of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, and (inspiringly) Schnittke, left strange, and strangely familiar anxieties over old questions, with an odd, older-life twist: am I smart enough to understand this music now? Is this really so impenetrable? What things should I be studying? Listening to? How should I contextualize this? What is missing? Will I remember the things I learn, and will be learning? 

Curiosity, discipline, focus, commitment: these are the tenets one tries to abide by, even as one allows for falling off the track every now and again with Spongebob and Lily von Schtupp. Such ambitiousness isn’t related to any idea of worthiness vis-a-vis productivity (not that I don’t have some experience of the profound connection between perfectionism, workaholism, and depression) , so much as taking advantage of the lack of outer distraction, and engaging in what author Dr. Gabor Maté has termed “compassionate inquiry.” Indeed, this piece itself, inspired by various inspiring video posts, might qualify as a valid manifestation of that very inquiry. How much we will absorb what we are learning now, in this time, consciously or not? Whither enlightenment, empathy, inspiration? We may scratch at the door of transcendence, but we are seeking respite, comfort, reassurance, and for many, familiarity. It is rare and very special for me to experience things which are curiosity-inspiring  but equally comforting within the digital realm, to swallow lingering awkwardness and allow myself the permission to admit and embrace my cultural curiosity through them, and to have them inspire a reconsideration of the past, one that leads to forgiveness, acceptance, and a fortifying of commitment to that path’s expansion. To tomorrow. To curiosity.

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Drama In Dresden With Verdi’s “La forza del destino”

semperoper dresden

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Dresden, with its fascinating history and ornate Old Town, has always been a city I’ve long wanted to visit. Two recent events, scheduled within a mere sixteen hours of one another, gave me the opportunity for a brief if fruitful and very music-filled visit. The first, of course, was opera.

It was something of a treat to be present for the official start of the Semperoper Dresden season, which kicked off with a revival production of Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Power Of Fate). Conductor Mark Wigglesworth led a bold, cinematic reading of the score, underlining its epic nature with bold brass sounds and exuberantly lush strings. Suitably subtitled “A Melodrama In Four Acts,” I half-expected Errol Flynn to pop out of designer Julia Müer’s angular scenery — not entirely an exaggeration, considering the episodic and highly sentimental nature of the work.

semperoper interior

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave used two sources as basis for the opera: an 1835 Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (Don Alvaro, or The Force of Fate) by Spanish dramatist and politician Ángel de Saavedra; and a scene from Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp), the first part of the German poet/philosopher’s famous literary trilogy. Forza premiered at the Bolshoi in Saint Petersburg in 1862 before undergoing extensive revisions (including additions to the libretto by Italian writer Antonio Ghislanzoni) and being presented in 1869 at Teatro Alla Scala Milan. Its overture is one of the most performed and popular of orchestral works, and with good reason; it accurately reflects the unfolding drama with memorable melodic lines and some very grand orchestration. 

The story, with its themes of vengeance and redemption, seem made for a 1930s Hollywood caper, one of its two central male roles, Don Alvaro, a swashbuckling bad boy who murders the father of his beloved before going on the run for decades, and winding up in a monastery, where he later kills the brother (Don Carlo) of his beloved. So much for penance! But as director Keith Warner rightly notes in the program, the narrative also very much is a study in contrasts, chiefly that between haves and have-nots; this divide underlines a broader social “kaleidoscope,” as he terms it, that went on to be explored and examined in all forms of art, including the literary works of Dickens and Balzac. Warner made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival this past summer, with the equally intense Vanessa by Samuel Barber. “We are spectators in a big arena of life, in which all events influence each other,” Warner says in the notes for Forza. Such connectivity that drives so much great art, and I think, sustains it over decades, even centuries.

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The curtain call for “La forza del destino” at Semperoper Dresden August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Certainly a well-known facet of Forza for some time now has been its superstitious connections; it could well be considered the Macbeth of the opera world. Baritone Leonard Warren famously, tragically collapsed and died during a 1960 performance, having just sung an aria which begins, “Morir, tremenda cosa (“to die, a momentous thing”) no less; tenor Franco Corelli, well aware of the work’s unlucky reputation, was meticulous in exercising various rituals during performances; superstar tenor Pavarotti never performed it at all. Despite its spooky history, the opera was one of my mother’s favorites, with a 1969 recording (featuring Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill, conducted by Thomas Schippers) being given regular plays on her grand old cabinet-style stereo system.

I kept thinking of what she might’ve thought at Friday evening’s performance in Dresden. I am confident in stating she would have been absolutely delighted that the first full opera I happened to experience here, in my period of temporary relocation in Europe, is one by her very favorite composer. Considering Verdi’s work was the first opera I heard and knew as a child, it felt like the force of fate indeed. I’m also confident that, like me, she would have been thrilled by the singing, which was, in a word, stellar, and were amply aided by the wonderful acoustics of the gorgeous Semperoper Dresden house. As the vengeful Don Carlo, Russian baritone Alexey Markov was a sparky, dynamic presence, his vocal flexibility and great stage presence expanding the character’s range beyond one-dimensional-angry cliches; I would love to hear his (oft-performed) Eugene Onegin at some point. Russian soprano Elena Stikhina presented her Leonora as so much more than a simpering victim, but a multi-faceted, deeply feeling woman whose hungry search for her own unique identity leads to leads to some dark, desolate (literally) places. Stikhina’s vocal richness was balanced by a resplendent tone; she channelled steely, soft, sensuous, and strong with ease, confidence, and charm, and deserved every “bravo!” directed at her at the curtain call.

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Tenor Marcelo Puente at the curtain call for “La forza del destino” in Dresden on August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Tenor Marcelo Puente, who I interviewed when he appeared in Toronto last spring as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, has the right mix of macho physicality and leading-man-charm for Alvaro — and that voice! With a thickly virile sound, Puente’s bright top notes are nicely balanced by a very impressive oaken bottom. Many of Alvaro’s musical lines require thrilling flexibility and smart modulation, and Puente was more than up to the task in each. Since hearing him in Toronto, his voice has taken on a greater variety of tonal color; it’s become broader, more sensuous, lush. The Argentinian demonstrated ample drama in both runs as well as sustained tones. It was a performance that made me hungry to hear more of his Verdi repertoire. Fingers crossed.

So La forza del destino was the perfect start to my opera season; it was also an ideal introduction to the Semperoper Dresden, though it was not the only time I experienced the gorgeous house during my whirlwind visit — Shostakovich, Gautier Capuçon, and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra awaited the very next morning.

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Trovatore

Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Memories, Magic, And “Significant Presence”

The passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky didn’t shock me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful. The experience of living with a loved one with cancer for over a decade has made me cynical about happy outcomes, but, my reaction yesterday was less related to cynicism than to the direct experience of seeing the baritone this past April, recalling the last time my mother saw him, and accepting, with a heavy sigh, the finite nature of humans living with terminal illness.

Dima, as he was known by friends and fans alike, sounded magnificent on that cool April evening. Part of a concert event called Trio Magnifiico which marked the Canadian debuts of fellow Russian opera singers Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, it was, I later realized, powerful for not only the chosen repertoire (largely by Hvorostovsky himself, as Netrebko had told me in an earlier interview), but for the inherent power of a man clawing at his own fate through his art. The appearance marked Hvorostovsky’s first public performance in several months, following the announcement of brain cancer in 2015. If ever there was an occasion when one could say a man was raging against the dying of the light, April was it. Hvorostovsky didn’t seem sad, but his performance (consisting mostly of Russian repertoire) had the fiery edge of anger, an impulse I remember thinking my mother would have recognized and wholly understood. His body language, especially in one aria (from Rigoletto, an opera about a man struggling against his own dying light, embodied in Gilda, the character’s daughter), expressed rage, sorrow, an intensity of flesh and spirit — of their collision, and the chaos that created. I remember clenching my jaw toward the end of the aria in a vain attempt to prevent tears. (It didn’t work.)

When I learned of Hvorostovsky’s appearance at the 50th Anniversary Met Gala shortly thereafter, I had to smile; I was in Berlin at the time, and I had wondered, with every deep-voiced performance I had heard, “how would Dima have done this?” I wasn’t comparing so much as curious: where would he have taken a breath? How would he have finished that phrase? How would he have approached this role? Why would he have made x or y choice? I equally realized, with many heavy sighs, that I would never see Dima onstage in Berlin, or probably anywhere else, for that matter, again. There’s a bittersweet fatalism that develops when you’ve lived with death for so long, sat across from it at every forced meal, driven with it humming in the backseat to doctor’s appointments, dragged it around shopping malls at the holidays. When it forces you to its logical endpoint, somehow the goodbye feels too soon — too mean, too heartless, and you realize the unfair bargain you were forced to make and live with. It makes perfect sense, and no sense at all. Cancer is grotesque that way, and no amount of fighting language popularly attached to it will ever remove the sting of sudden loss, much less the slow, dull ache of a long one.

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As Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera, 2011. Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

And so yesterday, as I attempted some degree of work productivity, I found myself listening to his voice blazing out of my radio, watching clips of him from 1989 (when he won the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition), and being plunged into a deep well of memories, recent and far, fond and bittersweet. In trips to New York, my mother and I saw him in a variety of works, including The Queen of Spades, Eugene Onegin, Don CarloRigoletto, and Simon Boccanegra. One didn’t merely hear his voice or watch him move; one experienced him and the force of his artistry, his confidence, his je ne sais quoi as a whole. It wasn’t just his considerable physical beauty — there are lots of good-looking people in opera, and always have been — but a kind of magic he conjured, contoured, and conveyed in waves. Few and far-between are the times in my life when I’ve sat in an opera house and been thoroughly, utterly thunderstruck by a perfect combination of vocal power, theatricality, confidence, ease, and … what? It isn’t easy to name. Call it star power, call it magnetism, call it presence; Hvorostovsky had it in jar-fulls, but carried it so lightly, like any star should. In a 2006 interview with New York Magazine, he commented that “(t)he sex appeal is part of the package. My voice is sensual, too, and it is part of my image and my character and my personality. It has something to do with a little magic called the “significant presence,” or whatever.”

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“Saint Cecilia”, Circle of Simon Vouet, 1613-1627

The velvet-smoke sound of his baritone was every bit as ubiquitous in my house growing up as the silvery tones of a certain famous Italian tenor; if Pav was the soundtrack of my childhood, Dima’s filled the role for my youth. I felt what virility was before I understood it. That sound would make everything stop: thinking, activities, hearts, breath. It commanded attention. He existed firmly within the world of opera, but also without, in an entirely different category, one I think he carried inside of him, guided by his homeland, by family, by the responsibility he felt toward the composers whose work he performed as well as the spirit behind those works There’s a bitter irony to Hvorostovsky passing away on November 22nd, the Feast of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians; it’s the day before Pavarotti made his Metropolitan Opera debut (in Puccini’s La bohème), in 1968. The sad realization that two of my mother’s very favorite singers, both of whom I saw live on multiple occasions, were taken by the same disease that took her, has forced some painful contemplations, though she’d remind me not to be so morbid, to simply “think of the music!”

The last time my mother and I saw Dmitri Hvorostovsky live together was at a 2014 recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto. My mother was suffering the horrendous effects of her umpteenth round of chemotherapy, and worried she wouldn’t be able to use the (great) tickets I’d hastily bought the day they went on sale months before. But something — her music passion, love of his work, curiosity, happiness to escape the house, worry at letting me down (or a mix of everything) — propelled her. I remember dropping her off along a bustling Bloor Street; she waited on a shady bench as I parked and ran back to meet her, trying to hide how rotten she felt, how tired she was, how fragile and thin she’d become. We slowly made our way through the venue, and she clutched her program as she carefully lowered herself into her seat. Trying to describe her face as Hvorostovsky stepped onstage is still impossible; I only remember her being lit from within. Over the next two hours, something happened: suffering stopped, disease stopped, the horrible daily details of illness stopped. There was purely sound, presence, pull — of being with Hvorostovsky through every breath, pause, roar, turn, smile. closing of eyes. We were with him.

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At the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts as part of Trio Magnifico, April 24, 2017. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions

I felt this once again in April, and I remember it now. Watching Hvorostovsky, I am in that world where everything stops; death gets out of the car, steps away from the table, is rendered powerless. It is magic.

(Top image: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Travels In Italy: Dolce e brutto

San Michele Arcangelo, the church where Verdi was baptized and was later an organist. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Two weeks ago I was touring the lands of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi in Emilia Romagna, northern Italy: the place he was born and raised, the splendid home of his benefactor, the lush gardens he would walk through. Those were the good parts.

Any sentimentality or indeed, romanticism, which so many feel in traveling to Italy, has been largely scrubbed out; never, in all of my travels, I felt more aware of my status — my vulnerability — as a woman. While there are finger-waggers who will tut-tut with inevitable “you should haves” and well-meaning “if only you hads” (instincts I find frustratingly passive-aggressive if not outright patronizing)  I stand by the validity of my reactions, deeply aware of the various costs of singledom as a woman, the frequently taken-for-granted privilege of coupledom, and the need to accept the wildly different realities of each, particularly within the wider context of travel experiences. I got to see a part of Italy very few people get to see, a unique experience to be sure, but one that comes with a bitter recognition in realizing that my only return to the country will be as either part of a tour, or for quick excursions to very specific places, namely Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, and of course, Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

A rose on the property of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

In retrospect, I wonder what Verdi, a man who felt such a clear kinship with the so-called “common man,” would have made of my experiences in his country as a woman in the 21st century. Would he have been appalled, I wonder, by the cat-calls, the leering, the begging? Being a solo woman traveler opened the door to an ugly jarful of assumptions, which led to harrowing experiences: theft, harassment, manipulation, and (as was the depressingly repeated case in so many restaurants), being totally ignored. What would Verdi have made of it all? What would he have made of my wrists being grabbed by a older woman wanting money? Or waiters running to serve amorous couples but consistently ignoring my inquiries about a missing lunch and requests for another glass of Lambrusco? Or of personal items being stolen from an abode? What of the forced kissing and repeated fondling after accepting help with luggage?  What am I to make of these experiences? Are they operatic? Is it “Italy being Italy” ? Should I not be bothered? Was it my fault? Did I somehow “ask for it?” Did I deserve it because I was alone?

In any terrible situation (or series of them), there are always minuscule shards of light, and it’s these shards I have to pick through now, with the benefit of hindsight. I will always remember the free shot of espresso provided by a friendly woman in a bustling shop in Parma; the plate of sandwiches set before me in a cafe by another woman who gave me a knowing nod when she saw I was alone; the warm, expressive tone of my tour guide at Villa Verdi (the composer’s primary residence for many decades), as I struggled in my limited Italian to understand her every detail. All of us were above a certain age, all of us perhaps had some shared understanding we couldn’t articulate. I remember these moments, cherish them, and I’ve taken a friend’s advice to try and focus on good things, like these moments, and the ones provided via music and history.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Jacopo Spirei’s Falstaff was my favorite production, and I don’t write that purely because I interviewed him about it before I left. Smart, funny, timely, and with a marvellously human lead performance by Roberto de Candia, the production (presented at the Teatro Regio di Parma as part of this year’s edition of Festival Verdi) was a true standout, and I wasn’t alone in that reaction, as chats with members of a refreshingly friendly British tour group revealed. Spirei placed the action in a familiar present, and filled the scene with very familiar people. De Candia played Falstaff as a kind of slobbish everyman, notably lacking the cutesy quality so common to characterizations. Instead, he was a kind of bar pig whom no one wanted to spend much time around — women especially; Falstaff wasn’t cuddly and harmless, he was slovenly and horrible. Only through his spectacular humiliation did he becomes semi-tolerable. The production made it abundantly clear that a character like Falstaff must be brought low in order to be raised once more, not as the phoenix, but as more of a messy pigeon who pecks around rotting porticos, and has to be kept in line with brooms and hoses every now and again.

Portrait of Verdi by Giuseppe Boldini, 1866.

I thought of Sir John Falstaff when I went to Villa Verdi some days later, because, as with Spirei’s magnificent production, I was being allowed to glimpse a vivid humanity which lives beneath an image. The house is located just outside the town of Busseto, roughly 40-odd kilometres north of Parma. Verdi supervised its construction, and, together with lady love (and soprano) Giuseppina Streponi, moved in in 1851. The house contains a number of mementos, as one might expect, all carefully and lovingly displayed.

Observing the bed in which Verdi died in 1901 (which had been shipped from the Grand Hotel in Milan) and various personal effects (including letters, knick-knacks, and the top hat and scarf he wears in Boldini’s famous portrait), a portrait of a good man dedicated to music and the people he loved emerges. It sounds hokey, but somehow, it wasn’t — but it was odd to walk around the living quarters of someone whose music was the soundtrack of large swaths of my life, to say nothing of my mother’s; it was ordinary and yet not, simple and yet grand, intimate and epic, all at once. Two pianos on which Verdi composed his works (early and later) were there, a clear case covering their keys. I stared at those pianos, longing to touch them. (No photos are allowed inside the house, alas.) I couldn’t rip my eyes off the second instrument on which he had composed Aida; this epic of the opera world, this contentious, difficult piece, with clashing ideologies and a gorgeously intimate subtext about loving the wrong person in the wrong time, “Celeste Aida” and the so-called “Triumphal March” — all that was done on the simple, upright piano sitting before me.

Gelling those reactions with the personal effects (to say nothing of the little section on Wagner) was surreal but also beautiful. I wish I could have had a few moments to stand in that room and take it all in, quietly, thoughtfully; it was one of the rare times during my travels in Italy that I actually wanted to be alone.

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The exterior of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

A more fulsome piece about my visit to Villa Verdi and the town of Busseto is set to appear in a future edition of  Opera Canada magazine, but at this website, expect a piece (soon) about a very unique version of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) presented in Reggio Emilia, which featured members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Italian entertainer Elio. Mozart’s opera has been on my mind a lot lately, because it is, as Komische Oper head honcho Barry Kosky rightly has noted, a work infused with a deep loneliness, and that quality is one which haunted me throughout Italy. Perhaps it was the absence of my mother, the social isolation that comes with being an independent woman of certain means, an overall disappointment… whatever the case: I am happy to have seen and experienced the things I did in Italy — and it will take a lot to get me to return.

A Trip For My Mother: Experiencing Opera in Italy

Eterior of the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Last evening was the last of two performances of Verdi’s magnificent Requiem at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Featuring the talents of soloists Veronica Simeoni (soprano), Anna Pirozzi (mezzo soprano), Antonio Poli (tenor), and Riccardo Zanellato (bass baritone), and led with intense passion by conductor Daniele Callegari, the occasion was dedicated to the memory of tenor Luciano Pavarotti at the tenth year of his passing. The Requiem was the first classical experience I had in Italy, and it was more emotional than I was anticipating.

Coming to Italy has meant facing the lingering grief associated with losing my mother, who introduced me to opera and who passed away in 2015 after living more than a decade with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I was her caregiver during that time, and I miss her in ways expected and unexpected. I knew this would be an emotional trip, but it also felt like an important one for me to take. Turning away from the opportunity to see some of my favorite artists live in places I know and love (like London) or places I’ve yet to see opera (like Paris, Munich, and Vienna), I chose Festival Verdi because it was, once it had been suggested to me, the sentimental journey I realized I needed to take.

Interior of the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Carmen may have been my first opera as a small child (I was kitted out in long gown and rabbit coat, and taken to a production at Toronto’s then-named O’Keefe Centre), but Verdi was the composer whose work I was essentially raised to. It is not an exaggeration to say his music was the soundtrack of my life. Yes, there was Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison, and ABBA, and Dean Martin, and Patsy Cline, and many others besides (my mother loved them all), but Giuseppe Verdi’s position in our little house was central and over-arching. I was a suburban ten-year-old who could sing along with “La donna è mobile” even if I didn’t know exact pronunciations of the words, let alone their meaning. I felt an electric thrill ripple from ears to legs to toes and back again the first time I hear “Di quella pira” (and I still do now). Watching a performance of La traviata‘s famous Brindisi on PBS inspired me to hoist a juice glass and sway around the room; I didn’t really know what they were saying (something about a good time?) but it felt good inside. This music still has the same effect for me; I feel good inside hearing it, whether it’s sad, happy, celebratory, or vengeful. The socio-political subtext of many of Verdi’s works, which I learned about growing older, only made me appreciate them even more, and never stopped me from swaying inside to that Brindisi.

My mother in opera-going gear. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Italophile though she was, my mother never learned the language, despite her love of opera and the many Italian friends we had through the years, and she didn’t travel as much as she would’ve liked for opera. Being a single mother in the 70s and 80s in Canada meant that going to the O’Keefe was all she could manage — that is, until we finally went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in the late 1980s. She’d already been of course, many years before, and prior to that, had seen many performances at the Metropolitan Opera’s original house. If motherhood (especially single motherhood) had dimmed her ability to see live performances, it had also made her go ever more deeply into her ever-growing music collection, and, at that time, record every single PBS special. I only recently cleaned out those (literally) hundreds of VHS cassettes, unplayable not just because of technological advances, but through sheer wear and tear; we watched the hell out of that stuff, and more than one happy evening was spent staring and listening, sipping on root beer floats.

Returning to the Met was, looking back on it, a kind of a homecoming for her. We sat up in the Family Circle and it was there, in the darkness, surrounded by well-dressed matrons and comfy-casual students, locals, travellers, newbies, old hands, the old, the young, everyone in-between, with the music coming in waves up to us, that I finally truly understood the depth of my mother’s passion. Not the swaying and verklempt expressions the many times she’d go up and down supermarket aisles, Sony Walkman firmly in place, listening to Saturday Afternoon At the Opera. Not the coy smile when we met Placido Domingo during his Toronto visit (a smile returned, by the way, with a wink). Not even the occasional breathy “ahh” between sections during live performances at the O’Keefe. No, nothing underlined my mother’s passion for the art form until we went to the Met, and especially, saw Luciano Pavarotti (her very favorite singer) perform, and the music of Verdi at that. If it’s possible to experience a person’s spirit leaving their body, I did in those times, and it’s a big reason I wish she was here with me in Italy.

My mother and I in 2000. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Still, there were challenges. Get two willful females living together and you may guess the rest; this trip she’d be chiding me to get a move on, stop burying myself in work, and “you don’t need that second glass of wine!” We’d argue about music as much as the mundanities of every life. I could not, as a teenager, understand her love of Wagner, whose work is, perhaps, the anchovies of opera, or was for me at least; only time, maturity, and experience allowed me to experience and appreciate the richness and complexity. While I adore his work now, in my younger days I had less than friendly feelings. My mother, by contrast, attended nearly an entire weekend of Wagner operas one trip to NYC; she wasn’t so deeply into the mythology as just the sheer, grand sound of it all, and if anyone could parse the threads between the two, it was her.

“You go for the music,” she would say. “If you don’t appreciate this stuff (meaning Verdi and Wagner, both), you can’t say you love opera.”

Not long after she passed away in 2015, an opera-loving friend active in the classical music world wrote to me. “She had the most pure appreciation for the music of anyone I’ve ever met,” he stated. “There was really nothing like it.”

Some may roll their eyes at this, and her perceived ignorance — the fact she couldn’t name all the international singers, didn’t know a lot of various directors’ works, didn’t closely follow very many careers outside of a famous few, couldn’t tell you about tessitura, cabalettas, or fach, didn’t (could’t) travel, didn’t have urban opera friends — and many more yet will say I parallel that ignorance in all kinds of ways, that I’m a twit, an amateur, a poseur, that I am pretentious and snobbish and full of hot air … to which I can only say, I admit ignorance to many things, I acknowledge the many holes that need filling, I try to educate myself in all sorts of ways, but also: I never, ever want to lose the purity of my mother’s appreciation. The day that purity is gone is the day I stop traveling, and the day I stop writing also.

Verdi’s Requiem at the Teatro Regio di Parma, 19 October 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Last night I was reminded of my mother’s pure appreciation, and just how much it’s been passed on. There are plenty of reasons why Verdi’s Requiem is important in terms of historical and political contexts (and NPR is right to call it “an opera in disguise“); none of those relate to what I found striking and moving experiencing its magnificent performance at the Teatro Regio di Parma, though. There was such a directness conveyed by and through Maestro Callegari, whose body language and responsiveness conveyed such a truly personal connection with the score. I’ve seen this work many times — with my mother and without — and while I have my favorite performances, none rank with this one; the immense chorus and orchestra transmitted balls-out grief and anger, and were wonderfully contrasted and complemented by thoughtfully modulated performances of the performers, who carefully wielded vocal texture and volume to create a wonderfully satisfying unity of sound. The house itself created so much immediacy of sound, and I can’t wait to hear more in it throughout the coming week.

At the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

My mother attended the opera in both Rome and Florence during her lifetime, but she returned from that particular trip full of remorse, as she told me, that she’d gone to Florence and not had time to go further north, to Parma and especially Busseto, where all things Verdi are located. Her absolute dream trips were to go to Milan for La Scala, and Verdi’s birthplace and home. I’m nearby in Parma, and I am thinking of her constantly.

I smiled lastnight, my critic’s ear ever focused, thinking, “that brass section is a bit loud” only to hear my mother chide me, as she did so often in such cases, as she’d shake her mane of red tresses and furrow her brow: “Don’t be so critical all the time, just enjoy… listen and enjoy!”

Good advice. Mille grazie, mamma. Questo viaggio è per te.

Only the Essentials

Photo via Tapestry Opera

What does “keeping the essence” of something really mean?

I recently attended a preview of Tapestry Opera‘s latest offering, an adaptation of DH Lawrence’s short story The Rocking Horse Winner, which opens in Toronto tomorrow night (May 28th). The tale, published in 1926, revolves around a boy who accurately predicts racehorse winners based on what he believes are tips from his rocking horse, in order to satisfy get the money to satisfy his upward-mobility-seeking mother. The company’s adaptation integrates contemporary elements with Lawrence’s original story, notably in its making Paul, the main character, autistic, and having the house he and Hester (his mother) share as being a real, actual character within Anna Chatterton‘s libretto and Gareth Williams‘ score.

During last week’s preview, Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori was asked, at one point, why such radical changes were necessary. Why alter something so dramatically from the original? What’s the point? Being curious about the art of adaptation, and passionate about opera as an art form, I thought it was worth asking both Michael and Anna for their thoughts — about the show, the adaptation, inspiration, and why and how change is a part of any adaptive process, especially for opera in the 21st century.

Why this particular story? Why did you think it would make a good opera?

Anna Chatterton (AC): D.H. Lawrence writes complex characters with a strong story structure. Composer Gareth Williams proposed the story to me, he particularly loved that the house whispers to Paul (the protagonist of the story) that was a clear singing opportunity. We could both see that the story could be distilled down and yet also expanded to tell a moving tale about greed, entitlement, and a complicated relationship between a mother and son.

Michael Mori (MM): He is one of the authors whose stories have stuck in my head ever since I was a child. And this story has great love, great loss, supernatural elements, and a house and horse that whisper and talk… so the space for music to animate the story is wonderful! Also, it is refreshing to have a break from romance and betrayal while still engaging in a subject with high dramatic stakes.

Carla Huhtanen and Asitha Tennekoon. Photo by Dehlia Katz / Tapestry Opera
At the preview last week, one particular patron was upset at the changes you discussed around the adaptation. First: why make the title character autistic? Secondly, can you elaborate on what you mean about keeping the “essence” of the piece intact (the word you used last week)? 
AC: As it happens, that patron apologized to me afterwards, recognizing that we aren’t calling this opera “a dramatization of The Rocking Horse Winner” but “based” on The Rocking Horse Winner. (But) there’s a disconnect between everyone in the original story; so much is unsaid. We wanted to examine what was making the characters detach from one another — what barriers could be stopping them from understanding one another? From hugging one another? We’ve tried to keep this aspect of our adaptation present, yet also unsaid and under-the-surface. We wanted to explain yet still hang on to the otherliness of the boy at the heart of the story. There is a moodiness about the story, almost a nightmarish quality, which we followed; I would say in many ways the music is keeping the essence of the story intact. About a third of the original text is in the libretto. 

MM: There are people who love period pieces being done in period costumes and re-constructed Victorian theatres – for example, Shakespeare at the Globe or La Traviata directed, designed, costumed, and set exactly as the score details. I am of the school of thinking that capturing the essence of the work involves interpreting it for a contemporary world. What Verdi, Shakespeare or D.H. Lawrence meant when they were speaking to the public of their generation and location would not be received the same today if performed or read exactly as it was. The essence of Rocking Horse Winner involves a plot structure, a specific dynamic between a mother and a misunderstood son, a class commentary in a period of time when entitlement is being challenged, and a loaded question of what is “luck” (which I take to mean, what is love)— all things explicitly included in the opera adaptation. Making Paul a young man on the autistic spectrum allows us to invoke a similar dynamic. Where the parenting role of an upper class mother in the early 20th century was being redefined in the time of the short story, the opera examines the role of an upper class single mother dealing with a developmentally challenged child, a situation and dynamic that, in 2016, we are continuing to learn how to better deal with.

Why have the house “talk” and not the horse?

AC: Because the house whispers to Paul in the original story, but the horse doesn’t. It didn’t even occur to us to have the horse talk…

MM: The house is the pressure, the question, the demand, the coaxing, and, therefore, the Mephistopheles to this family; a far more dynamic character and a more interesting expansion considering the potential of music.

Anna, how did having a child change or influence your approach to this work in particular?
Photo via NOW Toronto
AC: Having a child and becoming a mother instantly made me very aware of the complexities that are born at the same time as your child. It made me really understand and feel more empathetic about the mother character in D.H. Lawrence’s story. You can feel many emotions about being mother, and about your child. Even though I desperately love my daughter more than anything, I can feel differently towards her moment to moment. I can feel so proud of her and then for a few moments can secretly judge her and compare her to other children, then in the next moment go back to thinking she is the greatest child in the whole world and feel terrible about thinking anything negative about her. I can watch her and think “this is heaven” and then get so frustrated when she is acting up and think “this is hell.” What I love about the character that D.H. Lawrence wrote was that it was a brutally honest portrayal of motherhood. She is flawed, she exists, she tries to make up for her flaws, but badly. 

Michael, your M’dea Undone last year was staged outside at the Brickworks, while Rocking Horse Winner is in a more traditional theatre setting. How do these locales influence and alter your decisions as a director?

MM: I would say rather that our shows influence our locales… When we see a place with the most potential for the work, we go forward. M’dea Undone has a truly expansive feel and, when we considered the scope of it, we fell in love with the idea of setting it in the Brickworks and accessing that urban, raw, and shabby-grand feeling that it invoked, so in keeping with John and Marjorie’s M’dea. Rocking Horse Winner is an intimate story, set mostly in a house… and the Berkeley Street Theatre became a wonderful place for us to bring a house to life, while inviting the audience inside.

What sorts of things within the score do you think are important to emphasize directorially?

MM: There are motifs that recur: the race, the mother, Paul… all appearing and reappearing in different ways. Since my direction is always driven by the music, I would rather say that clarity of drama in areas where the music is loud and raucous (where the words may be hard to understand) is one of the things that I strive for.

Why are works like these important for opera ecology in Canada?

Photo via Tapestry Opera

MM: A simple answer would be that new works are important for the same reason that reproduction is important to any living ecology. Without reproduction, survival is endangered. If we allow the perception that opera is a museum form with an ossified and static repertoire, then growth and inspiration within the genre and its performance practice will be stymied. As we return to accepting new works (in new ways) into our understanding of opera, we not only engage new artists and audiences in a form that is more relevant to them, but we also are training a new generation of masters. Just think about Mozart or Verdi’s first two operas – they had to have had opportunities to grow towards their masterworks. This show in particular will be a valuable piece, as it proves that a beautiful musical aesthetic in opera doesn’t mean a derivative or overly programmatic composition.

Auld Lang Sigh

photo via my Instagram

At this time last year, I was laid up on a sofa, tissues at the ready, sick with the flu. My mother had gone to a nearby friend’s for the New Year’s Eve countdown, with my assurance that was fine to leave me alone; I just needed rest and relaxation, and there was nothing further she could do past the jello-making and soup-heating and tea-freshening she’d been doing for twenty-four hours.

Wrapping herself in a thick, woolly, vintage Hudson’s Bay coat, a jaunty hat, and chunky knitted scarf, she sauntered down the snowy street around 8pm, returning just after midnight, eyes watering from the cold, but her face flushed with happiness.

“I had three glasses of wine!” she marveled.

It seems incredible, thinking back on that night, how physically strong she was, how capable I was, even with the flu, and how much 2015, as it rolled further and further along, took out of us both.

There’s a belief that hardships are sent to teach us something — about ourselves, about our attitudes; we endure them as a means of hardening our survival instincts and honing our notions of identity. It’s true, I’m grateful for the lessons each year has brought me, but no year has taught me more, on so many levels and in so many ways. No year has made me more cynical and yet more curious, more angry and yet more accepting, more honest and yet more aware of the drive to deceive and the great, frightening need some have to throw a theatrical, rosy cover across motive, intention, behaviour, and character. 2015: harsh, painful, important. I’m glad it’s over.

Realizing many of my local relationships aren’t as true as I thought has been a good thing, but it’s also been a painful lesson. I’m grateful to the good souls who call to check on me, who take time to visit or meet up despite poor weather and busy schedules, who don’t make excuses but make time. I’m equally grateful to the far-off people who send good wishes via social media, who follow my updates and share my work —they’re people who engage, interact, actively encourage and communicate; they take the initiative to stay in touch. They get it. Expressions of support and basic concern over the course of this horrendous year, many from quarters I hadn’t expected, were, and remain, very moving. It’s meaningful to know there are people out there listening and watching, who take the time and energy to stay in touch despite busy lives and schedules.

photo via my Instagram

Of course, nothing beats an in-person conversation. Taking the initiative to gently, lovingly pull me out of the cave of grief I frequently (and often unconsciously) retreat into is something I cherish, and to be perfectly frank, I wish it happened more often. In years past, I would always be the one planning, producing, pulling people together. I stopped doing that in 2015; illness and death left me too exhausted and grief-stricken. When the realization recently hit that the only holiday party I attended this year was the one I threw myself, I became both troubled and curious; should I work on being more popular? Should I find an outside job? Ought I to subscribe to the hegemony of coupledom? What about me needed to change? Then I realized, as I have so often throughout 2015, that some people — many people — are, in fact, self-involved assholes. There’s no getting around that harsh, if unfortunately true, fact.

Good moments from 2015 happened in direct relation with, or as a direct result of, my work. Teaching in the early part of this year was one of the best professional experiences of my life; being around students with an abundance of energy, curiosity, and so many incredible stories and passions was a life-enriching thing, and I am greatly looking forward to returning to it. Deeply satisfying writing and reporting opportunities blossomed with CBC, HyperallergicOpera News and Opera Canada magazines, as well as the Toronto Symphony. Likewise, many of the best conversations, connections, and concentrations happened in and around, or because of, music and art. Good people and great moments came into my life because of shared passions. Such happenings were like shooting stars: bright, magical, brief. That is, perhaps, all they were meant to be, but their memory is beautiful, a work of art, something I go to and stare at in mute wonder.

Wonder is what shimmers around my favorite cultural things from 2015. I generally dislike “Best of/Worst of” year-end lists — to use one of my mother’s old phrases, it’s no fun looking up a dead horse’s ass — but there are certain moments that stick out: the thick, heavy lines of Basquiat’s paintings, bass baritone Philip Addis’ expression as he leaned, Brando-like, against the set of Pyramus and Thisbe, Daphne Odjig’s bright, vital colors, the way soprano Kristin Szabo and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus looked at each other in Death and Desire, Carrol Anne Curry’s laugh. I don’t want to get too trite and say “art saved my life this year,” but, in many ways, working in and around culture, sometimes through very harsh conditions and circumstances, was the best kind of therapy. My mother worked for as long as she could; it gave her a sense of accomplishment, pride in a job well and thoroughly done. Work for her was, I realize, a necessary distraction through the horrible illnesses she faced in her fifteen years of her cancer. More than a distraction, work was a kind of beacon of security, even when the nature of the work wasn’t entirely secure; the nature of the work, and the feeling it gave her, were. I get that.

photo via my Instagram

And so, as 2016 dawns, I’m tempted to want for more: more art, more magic, more satisfying work. But as 2015 so succinctly taught me, you can’t plan for pain; you can only ride its high waves, and hope, when you get sucked under, you don’t swallow too much salt water. I didn’t emerge from that sea a tinfoil mermaid; I emerged battered, bruised, with an injured foot and a sore heart. I don’t feel strong as 2015 comes to a close; I feel different. I’m more suspicious of peoples’ motives, less tolerant of bullshit. I love my work, and the possibilities it affords. There are places I want to travel, people I want to meet, things I want to see. I wish for more sincerity. Such a desire isn’t on a timetable, unfolding precisely over the course of one year, but I suspect that it helps to stay curious, critical, controlled in reactions and devoid of drama.

2016: less assholes, more authenticity. It’s a start.

Christmas Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Fighting But Living

photo via my flickr

This year has, as many may know, been a difficult one for me.

The death of my mother has been the worst thing, but there’s also been a mountain of health issues to deal with, a mountain that has taken the form of multiple surgeries and visits to doctor’s offices, to say nothing of personal dramas verging on the surreal. Capping all this off has been the news, just received today, that a spot I had partially biopsied last week has come back with a positive result. That is to say, the positive is a negative.

I recall feeling my heart sink as soon as I glimpsed the word “Melanoma??” scrawled on my doctor’s notes a few weeks ago. Me, cancer? I’d been through so much already this year. It seemed like a cruel test of endurance. Could it possibly be? I’d stupidly ignored an ugly, squished-mole-looking spot on the bottom of my foot for most of the year, tied up as I was with other pressing matters; it was only the urging of a dermatologist friend that pushed me to go get it seen to. I can’t say I’m not glad, but still, there is something to the ‘ignorance-is-bliss’ mindset.

So where to now? Only time will tell. A full excision of the area, a raft of tests… and probably more tests, and perhaps even a cocktail of medications and other treatment options. Another surgery that will result in some mobility issues. I’m bound and determined to keep active in my arts reporting, however; add to this a list of cool things for 2016 (including another stint teaching a college course, possibly starting an arts and culture podcast, and an evening hosting an interview with opera singer Christine Goerke) and that means, even if (when) my ability to get around is affected, I still plan on going forwards, as much as I am able to. I have passions and talents and I love exercising them both.

That doesn’t mean I’m “fighting.” As in the summer, when my mother was fading, a strong desire for normalcy and habit has entrenched itself. Doing things I enjoy, that are meaningful to me, that I know I am good at, things that feel familiar — carrying these tasks out feels vital in order to sustain my sense of well-being. It’s been interesting to note how, in announcing my diagnosis on Facebook, so many have responded by writing “you got this,” and “fight on,” and the like. I know they mean well, and I know it’s a testament to the qualities they feel I possess. But honestly, cancer will, as I have learned, do whatever it damn well pleases. Medicine and science are only so effective (though that’s apparently quite a lot for melanoma). I’ve seen cancer’s hideous reality firsthand; I saw the strongest person I’ve ever known give her all — it didn’t matter. With cancer, it’s not a question of a person “fighting it” — not really; as I once read (and it may’ve been Susan Sontag who wrote it), if that person dies, does that mean they didn’t “fight” hard enough? Is it their fault? Should we blame them? is it my mother’s fault she died — she didn’t “fight” hard enough? I feel like the language of support, especially around this disease, needs to change, and quickly.

Cancer is not a choice. How one reacts to it is, sure, but pastel -parka’d Pollyannas throwing rainbows and sunshine on what is clearly a dire thing is truly wretched; no amount of sparkly, colorful streamers on poo will make you think that mess on the road is anything other than what it is. And so, there are days when I will be (/have been) terrified, and times when I’m not; times of great sadness and self-pity, times of immense victory and top-of-world-ness. These emotions come and go like waves. I don’t think floating through them means I’m “fighting” so much as it means I’m a human being swimming through a really crappy experience. I never expected to be facing cancer. And I never thought of myself as any kind of a fighter (or even — and this may shock some – a lover), so much as a truth-teller; you can put that down to my astrological sign if you wish (some think it’s fun) or the fact that, as Frederick Raphael wrote in his wonderful biography of Lord Byron, the only child of a lonely single mother is rarely told to hold his (/her) tongue. Maybe it’s that I’m a journalist too, and I like thinking in big-picture terms.

There is a sense of “why-me”ness, yes, mixed with feelings of resignation, disgust, and finally, acceptance. I am blunt, sometimes to the point of inadvertent wounding, so I say this to those who think I’ve “got this”: I don’t. And I’m terrified. Normal life goes on — the writing, the reporting, the talking, the teaching. Dealing with the terror is my new normal.

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