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Harry Bicket, conductor, The English Concert, maestro, Baroque, classical, The English Concert

Harry Bicket On Touring, Being Bullish, & Believing In Live Performance

Baroque music might be the classical form that comes with greatest number of clichés. It is arch, it is highly formal, it possesses a tight structure which erases any notion or expression of emotion; it is repetitive, it is fussy; once you have heard a bit, you have most certainly heard all – these are the bit of baggage I carried myself whenever I would sit down at the piano and play the works of Bach, Telemann, and Handel. I knew the notes well enough, and I didn’t care; I understood the repetitions, but they were dull. Along with grey hair and wrinkles, adulthood brings maturity (one hopes), patience (sometimes), and a deeper appreciation of form and content, and the connections therein. So arrives a greater energy put toward understanding the myriad of emotional expression wrought by artful engineering; through time da capo comes to mean something more than the snazzy hat from youth now gathering dust in the hall closet. Those olives that were once so acrid are now heavenly; those anchovies once so bossy on the palate now meltingly luscious – those repetitions once so dull are now so… real, so immediate, so achingly, recognizably human – messy, even, just the way humanity, and all manner of human relating, happens to be.

That immediacy, so inextricably and intimately linked with baroque itself, is something conductor Harry Bicket knows well, as his recording and performance history so thoroughly demonstrate. Bicket started out as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, and went on to be an organist at Westminster Abbey, from there going on to play freelance harpsichord through the 1980s with Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner – and Trevor Pinnock, who, significantly, co-founded The English Concert in the early 1970s. In 1990 Bicket led  Handel’s Ariodante at English National Opera – it was his was his first outing conducting an opera – and it was the success of that production (by David Alden) which led to an invitation to lead Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne with director Peter Sellars. From there, productions with Bayerische Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera soon followed, opening the doors to something of a baroque opera revival. Maestro has appeared at The Royal Opera Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company, to name just a few, and has also led concerts as guest conductor with The Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic,  the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and led masterclasses at The Juilliard School. Numerous appearances with Santa Fe Opera (starting with his first, Agripina, in 2004) led to his being named the company’s Chief Conductor in 2013, and in 2018, the Music Director. He led two of the company’s 2021 productions (The Marriage of Figaro and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and is set to lead a new production of Carmen for Santa Fe’s 2022 season.

Bicket became Artistic Director of The English Concert in 2007, and has left an indelible mark on what is considered by many to be one of the finest baroque chamber orchestras in the world. The group, who play on period instruments, have conducted lauded international tours and played numerous concerts at their London base, in an assortment of venues, including Wigmore and Cadogan Halls and the Southbank Centre. The group’s recording of Handel’s Rodelinda, released earlier this year (Linn Records), is miraculous in every respect. Its stellar cast includes piercingly beautiful performances by soprano Lucy Crowe in the title role and countertenor Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. Handel’s opera, premiered in London in 1725, is one of his most popular, if also deeply touching, with its themes that explore ideas of power, loss, grief, and the nature of fidelity. The production was originally scheduled for presentation at Carnegie Hall, but pandemic realities rendered that plan impossible; instead, a recording was done at St John’s Smith Square, London in September 2020, with musicians and singers observing formal distancing protocols. Despite, or perhaps owing to such mandated distancing, the work has a rich aural cohesion of instruments and voices, a quality one might associate more with late-nineteenth-century German opera than with baroque opera, although the distancing contributes what Fiona Maddocks noted (in her review at The Guardian) as “a sense of risk to music already, in its energy and complexity, on the edge.

Bicket knows that edge very well, and his attention to detail is palpable; he led a hailed production of the opera at The Met in 2004 (the opera’s first-ever production of the work in the history of the company), and returned for a revival in 2012. In March 2022 he returns to the pit at The Met once more, leading Elza van den Heezer and Iestyn Davies. He told San Francisco Classical Voice‘s Michael Zwiebach in early November that his work with the chamber-sized The English Concert, which he leads from the harpsichord, forces such attention to detail:

[…] all this music, obviously, is based on text, and the music exists because of the amazing libretto and also the characteristics of the Italian language. You know, every double consonant, every diphthong, every open vowel, every closed vowel: How do we find a color in the orchestra to match that. Because if we don’t do that, we are the equivalent of a singer that goes on stage and sings “lalalalala.” So I say to the orchestra, “look this word begins with a hard ‘S’ not a soft ‘S’ so our bowstroke has to be a sibilant ‘S’.” Now we have a common language so we can do that quite easily.

Earlier this month Bicket and The English Concert went on a much-awaited mini-tour of California, presenting a series of in-concert performances of another Handel opera, Alcina, with stops in Los Angeles and Berkeley; the stellar cast included Karina Gauvin, Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth DeShong, Paula Murrihy, Alek Shrader, and Wojtek Gierlach. Bicket and I spoke between those performances, about that needed detail, travel realities amidst pandemic, the recently-announced 2022 season at Santa Fe Opera and why he loves its house, how atmosphere informs experience, and why he feels it’s vital to fight for the continuance of live performance in an atmosphere of digital streaming.

Harry Bicket, conductor, The English Concert, maestro, Baroque, classical, The English Concert

Photo: Richard Haughton

How is California treating you?

Good! We had our first performance two nights ago when we were very jet-lagged; it was an effort to get through the third act of the programme – it was 5am for us! – but we did well.

Is this your first time being on the continent since the pandemic?

Yes, we only got in, really by the skin of our teeth. Any other organization might’ve not bothered going it, but we were determined to make it work. All the orchestra had to get visas, these NIEs they’re called, National Interest Exceptions, which are notoriously hard to get; you have to go to the (American) embassy, be interviewed, each member has to be able to prove they can come, then they take your passport away and don’t tell you if you’ve got your visa or not.

Is that paperwork only because of the pandemic?

Yes, although starting next week you can get on a flight to the United States without any of this paperwork – I mean, as a musician, you always need a visa, but at the moment, because (the border) is still technically shut down and they are not allowing Europeans in, and if you do come in you have to prove your work is essential, which is quite hard to do and very labour intensive. We’d already booked flights and hotels and everything, so we’d have taken a huge hit had we not made it, but it worked.

So traveling to the U.S. was a real leap of faith then… 

It was! This was the third time we’ve tried to do this in Los Angeles, it’s been three years in a row trying now, the first two years were cancelled because of both lockdowns and we thought, “We can’t not do it now!”

What’s the atmosphere been like?

We had a very joyful time the other night, but obviously ticket sales are down and they’re not going to come back immediately. I mean with Santa Fe this summer, people were crazy ordering, but that is more of an outdoor space, so perhaps people feel more comfortable going there, but it’s depressing to think if people don’t want to come back to live theatre and music overall.

Have you found this pandemic has revealed an intercontinental chasm in terms of those audiences?

I think in Europe it varies from country to country in terms of the strictness (of safety protocols and related enforcement) – L.A. is pretty hardcore on those rules; you can’t go to restaurants without proving you’re double vaccinated. We’re being tested the whole time we’re here. People wear masks walking down the street – and in L.A. the streets are the size of five blocks anywhere else, but people wandering around here, not near anyone else, are doing it with masks. You see it. It’s mandated. And so it feels very locked down, in a way. The audience has to show proof of vaccination also, but I think it’s too early to tell, to be honest, how long things may last, and how people will react once things are just open. I mean, my sense in Europe is that we’re over it. I think now that the majority of people are vaccinated, and I think everyone accepts masks are here to stay and for certain rules and distancing, to a certain extent, to keep going, but it’s more a question there of, “how do we live with it?” rather than, “when will it be over?” – because it won’t really be over.

In your line of work you must hear of the attitude to baroque music – that it is emotionless, clinical, cold – but I don’t feel that listening to your Rodelinda at all.

I understand what you’re saying about those attitudes, though!

A lot of those clichés get perpetuated – in media of various forms, and even by some musicians!

I wasn’t an early music person years back; I was a pianist. I listened to Rachmaninoff and a lot of contemporary music. It was only by chance I got into earlier stuff partly because I started playing harpsichord for groups in the 1980s and yes, I don’t know why I ever thought baroque was boring but I thought of it as rather crystalline, this sort of perfect thing, and then I started working with certain theatre directors who were staging Handel operas particularly, and that was such an eye-opener, the depth of passion and also how very human that work is. We’re so used to opera being very telescoped, like Mimi and Rudolfo meet and three minutes later they’re singing a love duet and we accept that: “That’s opera, isn’t it?” But I always sat there and thought, “Oh come now, that’s absurd, really!”

In a Handel opera, for all the convoluted plots – well, it’s not really about those plots at all. After every recit you’re hearing someone for ten minutes, exposing their inner life, their inner thoughts, in real time, with two sentences – which is actually a very human thing. I spend a lot longer than ten minutes if there’s a grief in my life of an issue, so it does require a certain amount of recalibration in terms of the way we listen to something. Great are the artists who can really invest the repetition of these words in a way that makes clear the same words but constantly gives them a new meaning – like a person holding up a prism; it’s the same prism, but your turning it to the right, then the left, the light moves through it in a slightly different way. It’s a prism, it’s the way we use words. You can say ‘I love you’ as words, but how many different ways can we say those three syllables? That’s what Handel, for me, really explores. And this apparent simplicity, and some would say rigidity, of form becomes something really powerful.

Structurally it reveals so much, but often it feels like some people can get hung up on those repetitions; my mum used to say, “The music is all the same from this point on” – but it isn’t…

.. and that applies just as much to non-opera music! I’ve had discussions with orchestra members performing Mozart and Haydn symphonies and they’ll say, “Oh God, do we have to do the repeat? It’s just the same music…!” but you look at later repertoire where the composer writes out the repeats, and they don’t have a problem with that. You put a double bar there and they go, “Oh, let’s just go on, why are we doing it at all?”

And for opera especially, there is that theatrically rich territory related to that element…

That’s right…

… so it’s a prism as you say, but sometimes one requiring strength training for arms and shoulders to hold it up, and especially to hold it up in a way that allows the seeing of new things. How much do you think working those arms and shoulders is necessary when coming to something new? There is a debate now about preparing for classical events beforehand – what’s your take?

In terms of telling the story, I don’t… well, I mean, sometimes I don’t think a lot of these pieces are about the actual stories, they’re stories which were well known in the 18th century, it’s not like people came to Alcina going, “Hmm, I wonder what happens?” Everyone knew the story of Orlando Furioso; what the composer was doing was taking a snapshot of the middle of that book and exploring these characters, so to me it’s all about character, I mean plot is really secondary.

In terms of doing the homework before you go, of being a good listener, and/or getting the most out of enjoying a performance, I mean, different people have different ways of approaching it; a lot of people say, “Oh we always listen, we start couple weeks before going to this or that, it’s how, so we know what we’re coming to and understand it all” – and I think that’s fine. But equally, personally, I love going to pieces that I’ve never seen or heard before and not really doing that sort of study – not because I’m lazy, but I’d rather do it afterwards, so if I see something, if it can’t interest me on a surface level, more often than not I’m intrigued and maybe I’ll go back and see it again, or not.

Santa Fe Opera, theatre, auditorium, opera, outdoors, New Mexico, classical music, performance, culture, United States

Santa Fe Opera with the Jemez Mountains in the background. Photo: Robert Godwin

Looking into it later depends on the circumstances in which one experiences it in the first place, though. In Santa Fe the venue is outdoors; how does that affect music-making?

In acoustical terms it’s a very good – it doesn’t feel like an open-air theatre. It’s really a remarkable pit and stage area which allows the sound to be as good as any indoor theatre. I think the audience knows what this mysterious alchemy is if they’ve been before. And I think if you go there and you sit under the stars and watch the sunset go down behind the mountains – and often directors have the back of the set open during the sunset so you look through the set so the mountains become part of the set –I think then, if you hear some profound, beautiful music in amidst all that, it’s like you just drank three bottles of wine. It’s so rich and so powerful. And I would say it’s more powerful for some than going to a city centre opera house, battling the traffic and all that. Working (in Santa Fe) is the same thing; every morning, you drive up the hill with yet another beautiful cloudless sky, and you see these incredible gardens and rehearsal spaces, which are outdoors as well. I find that people’s spirits are so open because there’s something about that landscape and way of working that makes people happy. Musicians, by and large, have difficult working conditions, I mean for some places, not all – not everybody has what’s (in Santa Fe), which is very much a place of hard work as well. It’s not summer camp; it’s an Eden where people expect you to work very hard and the level is extremely high, so it’s not a pool party.

But how much of those expectations have changed now because of the pandemic? I would imagine there’s an extra layer of pressure.

I was very bullish when we were talking about reopening there, and about how exactly we can reopen. There were many questions: can we have a chorus onstage? Will we all have to wear masks and be distanced? A lot of decisions had to be made in February-March even though we didn’t rehearse until June. The thinking was, “In June it might be better, or “In June it might be worse!” We had to make a lot of those decisions, but I was very keen to quash this thinking of, “Oh look, it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the chorus onstage, the audience is so grateful we have a season at all!” I said, “No, no, no, that’s not part of this story! We have to be good, I’ll not have people making allowances.” “Oh, but we could be creative! We could use the restrictions in a creative way!” – this attitude to just sort of cop out and say, “Let’s work with those rules, everyone will be fine with them” – well I wouldn’t be fine. I would not be fine.

But that move toward allowances, of relegating everything to digital without any demonstration of willpower with regard to live presentation’s return, has become been a frustratingly common norm for certain companies. It makes me question whether the people working there really understand the nature of what they supposedly want to produce.

Well, this magic of the live experience is not just a thing in Santa Fe, which is particularly a unique experience – you don’t get that everywhere! – because it’s not something strictly related to landscape or setting .. it’s this thing of listening to music, together, with fellow human beings who you don’t know, who maybe you don’t even say hi to, maybe you sit there on your own, but you are all there, communing, for the evening, and you then disperse to all parts of the world. And you were all just at a totally unique performance, an experience you will never be able to replicate. When you watch a stream or edited concert, you know when you press ‘play’ what it’s going to sound like, every time, guaranteed, absolutely – it will be the same. But there is no danger, there is no excitement.

The whole point of live theatre is that we, as human beings, can communicate with each other – artists, performers, musicians, and audiences do that too, just by being there, together: loving it, hating, being indifferent to it. It is really important as a society that we do this.

So if you don’t get that, well, then anything I say will not make a difference anyway, but it will for the people who do come and experience it and get something out of it, or not – not everyone does! But then, not everyone who goes to a restaurant likes the food either; what’s important is that we go and eat, and that we can still do it, together.

It’s the act itself that counts.

That’s right.

Now with your live tour now, you have an amazing cast…

Yes we sure do! In a way one of the nice things… well, if you can say that about pandemic, but the fact is, when things like this are done at such a high level in these conditions, a lot of people are saying, “I want to be a part of that!” So a lot of singers through this period have looked at their lives, having had almost two years off now, and said, “I want to do the work that I really want to do; I’m just not going to take every single thing and be crawling up that ladder the whole way through my career, but pick the things I’ll get some personal satisfaction from as well.”

But that satisfaction, those projects existing at all, is, in some places, rather miraculous. Alexander Neef said in our conversation last year that he thinks classical companies should be embracing risk more than ever right now, so to your point, perhaps musicians are picking and choosing, but there has to be the will to make those projects a reality in the first place.

I think we have to be more aggressive with that. At The English Concert, we have a fantastic manager who is also our principal viola – I think having a musician there in that position is a good thing, at least from my point of view. He knows the value of an orchestra of working, and of being part of an orchestra; it’s a group of people, together. And if that group is sitting at home, not working, well, you’re not really an orchestra, are you? It’s not like being a resting actor; an orchestra, by definition, plays together, and it’s really important we are working, together. For instance, this tour was meant to be bigger, we were meant to go to Bogota for ten days, then go back to the U.K. via New York; Bogota got cancelled, it was put on the red list until a few days ago. We took the choice to cancel that, and our manager said, “That’s fine, we’ll do a week of recording in New York then” and I thought, “Oh really?” because I knew this tour would be busy – but actually, I also thought, “Good, yes, let’s keep working, let’s keep doing this.” So let’s keep knocking on doors, sometimes kicking those doors down – and let’s keep doing it.

Top photo: Dario Acosta
Nicky Spence, opera, tenor, singer, vocal, voice, music, Royal Opera, Scottish

Nicky Spence: Opera is “About How People Correspond With One Another”

London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of fresh ones for English National Opera (ENO)’s The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production of the Wagner Ring work, set to grace the stage of The Met in 2025.

There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. Those tales tend to follow a predictable path, and indeed Spence’s tale falls into this mould: all-night buses and anxious auditions and moving from hard-scrabble Dumfries youth to London music school, and onwards, of helping relatives and settling into a house with partner and dog when success did arrive. It’s the stuff of cliché, but sometimes the cliché is simply too correct to dismiss, and besides, the brand of success Spence is now enjoying was hard-won, because it wasn’t the sort that initially came knocking. In 2004, during his final year of school at Guildhall School of Music And Drama, Spence accepted a five-record contract with Universal Classics (Decca). He went on to make his first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award (as Young British Classical Performer Of The Year). During this time Universal/Decca had promoted him as “The Scottish Tenor”; Spence was in his early 20s at the time. When it came time to record his second album, Spence declined; back to Guildhall he went, for more intensive study of his craft. In 2009 Spence won a place at the National Opera Studio, and a year later joined ENO, as one of their inaugural Harewood Artists, where he did an equal mix of so-called “classic” opera (David in Die Meistersinger, The Novice in Billy Budd, Steva in Jenůfa) and contemporary: Spence created the role of Brian in Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera about the tragic intertwining of technology and passion based on a true story, which was subsequently staged at The Met.

Spence clearly wants to be a star, but that drive is in no way at odds with his keen musicality and theatrical instincts. An awareness of timing, texture, and technique, both vocally and physically, is evident, but Spence is smart enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (read: theatrical) reason. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence is still young, not quite 40; he’s performed on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu,  Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few. He returns to working with Martyn Brabbins on The Valkyrie at ENO later this year; it seemed clear from our conversation he was both daunted and thrilled by the chance to tackle Siegmund, a role that mixes dark and light, shade and nuance, in vocal writing as much as theatrical expression. So, to simply state that the tenor specializes in “darker” repertoire is to rather miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (sometimes dirty, ugly) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t diminish the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven (whose works can be every bit as chewy – Spence has performed them also), much less the work of contemporary composers, which Spence has admitted he would like to perform more often.  Taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the infusion of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), George Steiner ponders this equation of rare and special matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:

Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.

I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.

There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the Songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.

Complementing the hectic scheduling of an opera world that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) is Spence’s bubbly style. In his conversation with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently, he says, “I found this gift, I guess, it was like a superpower, really.” No longer The Scottish Tenor; now, perhaps, Super-Siegmund-Tenor, Spence’s past life filters into his present one: the pauses as much as the tones, the phrasing choices, the dynamic choices; the smell of hay, grass, and sea; the fumes of black cabs, the perennial buzzing of St. Martin’s Lane; everything informs Spence’s sound. Such authenticity makes his performances special, and memorable, events.

Nicky Spence, tenor, classical, singer, voice, vocal, sing, stage, performer, culture, Scottish, Royal Opera

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?

Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!

What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?

It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.

I spoke with (tenor) Allan Clayton when he was preparing this in 2020, and again when it was cancelled; he observed that Laca has “the chippiest of chips” on his shoulder. Your characterization will be different of course, but how did singing Števa prepare you for this, or did it?

I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.

They’re both outsiders.

Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.

… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?

I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.

His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?

I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.

So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?

The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…

What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?

I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…

… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?

Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.

Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.

That’s true!

You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.

For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I led masterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.

Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.

Well it’s important to be real.

Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…

There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.

In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epic nature of Wagner’s writing…

… yes it is…

… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?

Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling – they are epic tales! – The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day, and that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.

What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?

I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.

That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?

Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and, La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.

Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”

So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?

It’s a perfect balance.

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Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Dorn, culture, classical

Jan Lisiecki: “Live Art Is Live”

Jan Lisiecki has had a busy summer. Performances at a number of celebrated summer festivals, including Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival (SHMF), the Rheingau Musik Festival, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and Musikfest Kreuth left the pianist little time to prepare for his release of a long-planned project, Frederic Chopin: Complete Nocturnes (Deutsche Grammophon) but in speaking recently from his home base in Calgary, Lisiecki is chatty and energetic, a keen conversationalist who clearly revels in the reciprocal exchange of artistic ideas.

It’s an approach that colors his latest release, one which, as he explains, had been in his mind to do for many years. Hardly his first foray into playing or recording the much-loved music of the Polish composer (he’s released recordings in 2013 and 2017, respectively), his approach to the nocturnes conveys a delicate musical sensibility and a keen artistic maturity which belie Lisiecki’s own relative youth (he is not yet 30 years of age) and, even amidst pandemic, kept him in a creatively aware state which greatly aided in the realized recording. Lisiecki’s fame as a sort of wunderkind of the keyboard through the last decade-plus served to intensify such fastidiousness. At the age of 18, he became the youngest ever recipient of both the Leonard Bernstein Award (established by SHMF and named after one of the festival’s founders) and Gramophone‘s prestigious Young Artist Award (other recipients include countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and soprano Natalya Romaniw). Having worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Claudio Abbado, Daniel Harding, Antonio Pappano, among many others) and orchestras (Staatskapelle Dresden, Bavarian Radio Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, to name a few), his playing has been described as “pristine, lyrical and intelligent” by The New York Times. This month sees him playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Marin Alsop and DR Symfoni Orkestret in Denmark, before a series of dates in the U.S., both solo recitals and appearances with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. In November Lisiecki tours Europe, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic under its new Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner.

Amidst his busy live calendar (which, like many artists, extends years into the future) Lisiecki had long planned for a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes. Recorded in Berlin in October 2020 and released in August 2021, the work shows a distinctively thoughtful approach to the famous, widely beloved pieces. Chopin wrote the series of works between 1827 and 1846, expanding on a form developed by Irish composer John Field (1782-1837). Unlike other piano forms (sonatas, for instance), nocturnes do not  possess a sort of programmatic narrative or formal structure, but mainly utilize a ternary form (ABA) which emphasizes a main theme and its related contrasts and embellishments. With a song-like right hand melody and the use of rhythmic, broken chords in the left hand, Chopin, in writing his own set, also utilized pedal effects and counterpoint in his composition to underline sonic tension and drama. There are a number of scholarly papers and debates around the tempos and role of rubato in the nocturnes, and the influence of such choices in relation to interpretative fidelity and style. In her 1988 book Performance Practises in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Applications (Indiana University Press, 1988), Sandra P. Rosenblum writes that “choice of tempo is a fundamental yet elusive aspect of performance practice. Tempo affects virtually every other aspect of interpretation: dynamics, touch, articulation, pedalling, realization of ornaments” and also observes that a pianist’s choice of tempo will certainly affect “what the listener perceives, hence it bears directly on the effectiveness of the interpretation.” Lisiecki has notably chosen to take a much slower tempo in his recording than many of his famous forebears, an aspect which has been questioned by some since the album’s release. If I may inject a personal view here, Lisiecki’s choice of tempi allow, to my own (admittedly non-conservatory-attending/music-degree-holding) self, a very thoughtful and lovely listening experience, one that skillfully combines intellect and imagination in ways that highlight the rhythmic nature of the writing (for both hands, equally) and the thought-to-word-like manifestation of clear creative articulation; such willful (nay, conscious) turning of the gears well reflect the sort of late-night contemplations to which the nocturnes directly refer. Don’t we all muse thusly in the middle of the night? This may not a so-called “traditional” reading, but, it doesn’t have to be – not for whatever perceived musical validity is deemed important by the classical world, let alone for one’s personal enjoyment. As musicologist Richard Taruskin argues in Text and Act: Essays in Music and Performance (Oxford University Press, 1995), traditions “modify what they transmit” via what he terms as “active intervention of the critical faculty, but also by what we might call interference.” Such traditions, he writes ( and most particularly within “a musical culture as variegated as the Western fine art of music has become”) are open to what he views as “outside influence.” It is this act, of combining inner critical faculty with various forms of external influence, combined with understandings of tonality, structure, and dynamics, that lends Lisiecki’s interpretations such innate power. Taking this course with such well-known works only serves to underline the pianist’s powerful blend of intellectual and musical instincts, and only makes one more keen to hear how he might re-adjust them for a live and considerably larger setting.

Despite, or more accurately owing to, the realities of the current pandemic era, Lisiecki was provided the an atmosphere conducive to the personal. The combination of simplicity (a room with a piano), proximity (or lack thereof, in relation to engineers), and the natural light in which Lisiecki recorded at Meistersaal (in Berlin) last autumn was, as he noted recently, good for encouraging a sort of natural approach, one which is so easily perceived on this, his eighth release with Deutsche Grammophon.

Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, culture, classical

Photo © Christoph Köstlin / Deutsche Grammophon

What struck me about your album is how you personalize everything, but without sitting and steeping in a so-called sentimental sound. Your tempo choices, for instance, are well considered.

Well, I might not agree in ten years about them, but at the moment I did them it felt right, because, to be honest with you, those tempos choices were completely natural in the sense that I had no knowledge of them being that much slower. I’ve played the nocturnes a lot, in concerts and otherwise, and I know how I feel about them, some in the studio just ended up being like that. Listening in the booth and going back and forth, it never felt unnatural. I’m happy with it; I think it’s a good reflection of how I connected with (Chopin’s) music.

You didn’t consciously say, “I want this one to be this specific tempo” or do any sort of preplanning then?

No, definitely there was no, ‘Everybody’s playing these too fast; I’ll be much slower!” – I was recording the material at the tempo in, I guess, the way it felt right.

To me it makes them seem almost like speech if that makes sense…

Yes!

… it very much has the sound of somebody musing in the middle of the night on something; as a writer I like that.

Aw thank you Cate, I appreciate it.

But you recorded this in Berlin, in a space with natural light, during the day; did that make a difference energetically?

Let’s say, first of all I’m an artist and musician who plays concerts in the evening but I like working in the day; I’m not an evening practiser. I finish my work day of practise by 2 or 3pm, if I can, so to me recording during the day is when I feel most comfortable. What I like about natural light is feeling I’m connected to the day and not in a studio, especially since it was late October. During the day, the mood in Berlin, if you know Europe during the winter, is grey and bleak, so it’s nice to have those few hours of sunlight inside and you don’t feel like you’re missing out, and also then you can find your own space within that environment. It’s a beautiful hall, a rectangular room with high ceilings, and it’s rather ornate, not excessively so, but has some ornate elements, and feels nice to be in, the piano in one corner, the microphone in another area; it felt very natural.

It seemed like an environment where you weren’t completely in a bubble, cut off from everything, but just separated enough to be with your thoughts.

Exactly, and I’d had enough experiences of concert halls with no audience during the pandemic; it was nice to have not have yet-another-empty-concert-hall, but a studio with a piano, it almost felt like you were in your own studio practising for yourself, or working just for yourself.

That’s how it sounds.

Yes, and another sort of relevant fact, in terms of the sound, is that the booth where the recording engineer was sitting is quite a distance away from the (room with the piano), it’s down two flights of stairs and then across a hall, so it takes a fair bit of time to get from the room to the booth, and as a result, first of all, you’re more focused on doing something, it was a complete thought whenever you did sit down, and second of all, you have that crazy walk back and forth to get you out and into the mood accordingly.

And nobody behind a pane of glass staring at you and evaluating.

Right.

Now, recording in a space in these times, there is something unique about doing these extremely well-known works, and in this particular pandemic environment; how much were you able to pull down the blinds, or did you not want to? Was the act of recording amidst a worldwide pandemic an essential part of the creative process, or did you block it out?

It was definitely part of my process,and that’s part of the reason that I was able to record during the pandemic. I’d been thinking or dreaming about recording the nocturnes for a long time; it was a long-term project, not something that just came up, it was something which was a very conscious thought for years, and so it involved years of preparation, and those years of preparation are connected to wanting to experience (the works) in a concert hall – they are very personal as you said, but you run the risk while playing them of going too far in that direction, of going too far into your comfort zone, which is not where it feels the best when you are onstage, when you feel you’re losing the audience’s attention, when you can feel their attention wandering away. I can hear when that happens.

So to play and program 21 nocturnes onstage took many many many years, it’s something that I was preparing for, and happened to reach a culmination point this past year, and at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, Deutsche Grammophon said, “Oh, you’ll have fewer concerts, so let’s record this in August!” and as it got closer, I saw that things were very uncertain and people were antsy still, and I was supposed to have a few concerts but they were much more stressful than usual because there were so many external layers involved. I didn’t know how they’d look and be, and I would not have been in the right frame of mind at all. And then from March to October I did have things to do, I had things beyond music I was enjoying, and had the opportunity to do – like work in the garden or go camping with my dad, or not do anything for a whole day, which was very nice – but I could also work on the nocturnes in a much more relaxed sphere of mind, it wasn’t forced like I had a fixed deadline to prepare for and get to a certain point with. I could prepare and think through each one of them. That time right before the recording, to be honest, I was quite busy, I had something like ten concerts with Manfred Honeck and I was playing the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto in Dresden, it wasn’t like, “Oh sigh, I’m at home!” but some of the (moments leading to recording) felt calm, everything was calm, and I had to make peace with the pandemic and with the uncertainty it brought. Because of that, I could simply focus on what I was doing.

Living day-by-day has always been my motto; I’ve always lived in the present, but the pandemic has really heightened that. I like looking forward, I like to think “Well, I’m playing this concerto two years down the road” and “In two weeks I have to prepare this piece” – but all that went out the window. So it was, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What can I enjoy right now?” In this case, what with recording, it allowed me to focus, and to enjoy the moment.

Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, culture, classical, Chopin, nocturnes, coverThat’s palpable in the recording, and I hear something different every time. Listening to the left hand can really bring something alive that one thought one knew well.

If the music is only a sum of its parts, if you don’t pay a close enough attention, then you can risk the music becoming too comfortable, and being too happy with the gorgeous melodies; you just completely tune out everything else because it’s easy, it’s just, “Oh, the left hand, sure, whatever, put it away!” and the right hand, “Yes, let’s enjoy that, it’s so lovely!” But it doesn’t work musically. That (balance) has always been something important to me in playing Chopin. Of course there’s a principal theme and an idea and the harmonizing in the left hand, but sometimes the interplay between right and left creates completely new concepts and I do like finding those.

To me you can hear it in other things of his, or things written around the same time, but I find it takes the right interpretation to find those connections.

That’s right.

Obviously you know the other recordings; did any stick in your mind as you prepared?

I tend not to listen to other interpreters when I’m actively playing something unless it’s a concerto and I want to hear the orchestra, which of course includes a pianist, but in the case of the nocturnes I didn’t hear any interpretations for at least a year before recording them. Perhaps it wasn’t conscious – it was not a forced effort – but I just had no need to, because I’m living and experiencing these pieces on my own, and that’s a huge privilege. I know the audience listening to these works who come to the concert hall don’t have that same privilege for the most part, to simply play something for themselves, so they have a different appreciation of what it means to listen. When I’m listening to a recording, I find it very hard to get into the right mood to enjoy it as opposed to analyze it, so I tend not to, especially with regards to pieces which I’m actively playing.

Of course, that being said, I do respect other interpretations, and the ones that accompanied me through my childhood and longer, into my life, are those by (Anton) Rubinstein. He recorded all of the nocturnes, and there’s a sophistication about his playing; it’s always so elegant, so poised, it’s hard to find any fault with them… it’s just beautifully done.

Yes, I have that set! I wanted to ask you with relation to others and individual identity, some have said, “Oh it’s a Polish pianist playing Polish music!” I’m not sure if that kind of a reduction is good or bad for art, but I wonder what you make of such an assumed connection.

I think Poland, of course, likes to claim Chopin as their own, and they have a complete right to do that, but he lived most of his life beyond Poland, his composing and adult life, so undeniably that (experience of living abroad) did shape his writing, and likewise, while I was born in Canada, I do have Polish roots, and without a doubt they must also shape how I approach Chopin, although I never had a Polish teacher and I never really liked the so-called “Polish sound” in playing Chopin, which has a lot of rubato, it’s very rich, quite swingy, and not at all my taste. Now, this is a sort of stereotypical description, and there are exceptions – I love how Zimerman plays Chopin, for instance – and so that’s a rather unfair stereotype perhaps, but it’s an easy thing just as much to say or assume, “Oh you have special affinity for him then, being Polish yourself?” It’s hard for me to say, because I am who I am, and I don’t know how I’d be if I wasn’t – if I was born in Poland, or if I didn’t have those roots, but I appreciate his music as a person and an artist. I just like it , and I feel very comfortable playing his music. I can sit in front of a score I’ve never seen before and feel, “Ah yes!” – I have a vague understanding of what I want to do, and how I will play it, which cannot be said for every composer. I will get to a point, eventually, that isn’t that straight-forward, but (the inherent understanding) speaks to how he wrote for the piano; his musical language is very familiar to me, and he wrote so beautifully for the instrument. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m ever struggling to find a way to solve any problem (within the work).

Do you find you approach other musical things differently now, having had this time with Chopin and especially, this time with Chopin during a pandemic?

Again, sort of like the Polish question, I don’t know how it would’ve been if I didn’t record during this time, but I do feel everything has an impact and shapes the way one approaches music broadly. I think the sort of calmness that has pervaded, or became constant during the pandemic… for me, I will certainly take it with me into the future, though I can see and am hopeful of course it all turns out, and that life is getting back to normal in the some parts of the musical world. Some countries are getting back to normal, so the natural thing is to feel like, “Oh I’m going to get back to my old self now – at last!”… but it’s not quite like that. The pandemic has changed our values and understanding, in the same way it’s changed the approach to the nocturnes, and I’m glad I had that chance of recording them amidst all of this.

What’s it been like for you to go back to live performance then?

There have been many stages, because last summer I played one of the first concerts live, if not the first in Germany, in June 2020. So if you think of the situation in Canada then, like… wow, just nothing… and it was the same in some parts of Europe in many regards, except where they were starting to experiment, and those experiments kept going and going, and there was a palpable excitement with each one. And after each lockdown this excitement kept building in the performing arts world – I experienced it so many times, and everyone had different concepts of how long they’d be locked down, so even though I had been playing live a while, everybody was so excited, and asking me “How does it feel to be back?” And I’d say, “Well last week I was playing a live concert in Spain!”

I was always happy to play live, but the difference for me is, I’m not a fan, at all, of streams. I prefer not to play if I have to do a stream, for the most part. It doesn’t have any aspect of what I cherish in music. Live art is live, and it should stay with those who are there, those who have shared that experience and felt its power. Recording is high quality: you prepare, you put a lot of thought into it; you have the best environment; you have the studio, the piano, the technician, the sound engineer. But streaming is somewhere in-between these things; it’s not live for an audience, it’s not the same high-quality sound you expect – in fact, it’s usually poor-quality sound. It was interesting to see orchestras doing streams, and it was good to see that musicians were playing, that they had the chance to play – but just me playing solo, no way, no – I’m not doing that, at all.

So you need the feedback?

Yes. And you know, people say with these streams, “Well of course live art will die now” – no it won’t. Many people will be happy to go back to the concert hall the moment they can. But until then, to be honest, we have such a rich array of performances, both live recordings from pre-pandemic times and things recorded in a studio, and we haven’t had time to listen to those during normal our lives – why don’t we go back to those amazingly high-quality things and listen to them? Instead of choosing to watch something live, just because…? Others will disagree but I’m happy to argue with them.

There’s a tremendous drive on the part of marketing departments everywhere to get people of your generation interested in classical music through streaming…

… but that’s not the strength of our genre. The strength of our genre is in the concert hall. It’s about this extraordinary experience you will sometimes have… sometimes. I play hundreds of concerts a year and not every single one will be magical, either it’s me or the piano, it’s something in the hall, or the day, or the circumstances outside – whatever. You will have those extraordinary experiences a small percentage of the time, and everybody remembers them. Many who’ve never been to a hall happen to chance on those magical concerts and they’re suddenly a huge fan of classical because they had that experience of intimacy which provided a foray into the musical world of live performance.

And you think that epic and imitate combo only happens in a live environment?

Exactly, yes.

Essay: Finding The Right Fit (Or Not)

Manon Lescaut, stage, opera, Puccini, performance, culture, women, image, branding, singing, lingerie

A scene from the 2013 production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at La Monnaie / De Munt, directed by Mariusz Treliński, set design by Boris Kudlicka. Photo © Forster.

This essay started out as a love letter to fashion, within the context of the joys to be had in buying a dress amidst pandemic. Folded into this were contemplations on dressing up – for the opera, and otherwise; there were (are) quotes from Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde, and Marlene Dietrich. I still intend to publish this essay in some form or another in future (hopefully sooner than later), but for now, it feels smarter, especially in light of the restart of live cultural events as autumn draws near, to explore my original idea, one I was encouraged to pursue by a longtime editor friend. It’s been in my mind to write this for a while, and the combination of seeing a production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut recently, a closet full of pinned items, an overstuffed drawer of underthings I’ve come to despise, all seemed like cosmic signs urging me on.

Following my second jab in August I had an exchange with this individual which touched on issues of body image, fashion, fit, popular perceptions, and the longtime, frequently tortuous relationship I have with my body, and more specifically, my breasts. This time last year I arranged an appointment with a doctor to see about a reduction, a procedure I had long pondered. To relieve the near-constant shoulder and neck pain; to have the stacks of ribs, distorted by years of intense weight, corrected; to have things finally, at long last… fit… it seems, even now, like a distant and incredible dream. To have a breast reduction would (could) mean I might at last look like the actually-size-2 woman I am, that I might actually for the first time in my life, be in proper proportion without the aid of acres of close-fitting fabrics. I wouldn’t have to worry about stares, smirks, or judgement; I could wear what I like – a low-cut gown at the opera; a fitted turtleneck in the classroom; my strapless sundress in the supermarket. Ultimately I decided against the operation – for now. The thought of removing chunks of my own flesh, of living with permanent scarring on a part of my body to which I have an already-troubled relationship, of navigating postoperative pain, of courting judgement (and possibly real horror) from would-be lovers at the sight of my scarred body… such concerns created a mountain of anxiety I am not, even now, able to scale. So I contend with thick straps, well-padded cups, tight, strong bands; a good bra really is a piece of marvelous engineering, and a well-fitting one is something I will pay (have paid) good money for. Finding one that fits off the rack is (like any item of clothing) a rarity; I have a litany of bras sitting in a drawer, all of them impaled with pins in a desperate attempt to fit a much-shrunken frame (I have lost a significant amount of weight over the past eight months or so). It’s good enough for now, but oh, for the freedom of awakening without pain, of moving around without aches, of fitting things perfectly, of never having another button pull or another visible strap or of having to buy things two sizes too large. Oh, to never have to feel I am inviting lecherous stares, acrid judgment, social ostracizing, or risking professional advancement, credibility, acceptance, approval.

It’s an odd thing, to write a piece which might come off as a complaint, when one admittedly receives attention, and more specifically certain types of attention, over the very thing (things) one purports to dislike. I do get a jolt of joy from the reactions I elicit through my highly-curated posts; it bolsters the shaky confidence of an isolated woman whilst reassuring some form of public worth, however superficial. That satisfaction is finite (perhaps intentionally so), as I wonder why in hell I can’t seem to get over 100 likes on anything, all the while knowing the reason: algorithms don’t favour aging female bodies, or faces, unless scantily-clad and heavily-filtered – since wrinkles, cellulite, stretch marks (more precisely, real, lived experience) are unwanted within fantasy landscape celebrated and promoted throughout much social media, Instagram in particular. A thusly-filtered photo of me in a bikini, bum expectantly up, breasts prominently displayed, head orgasmically thrown back, ultra-posed, ultra-horny, ultra-algorithm-pleasing, would unquestionably hit that magical 100 (200? 400? 700?)-likes mark. Indeed, such measurement (of worth / goodness / hotness / popularity / desirability, and much else, maybe) is an unfortunate tool in the freelance world, one worth knowing how to wield, if requiring very careful handling. Post the wrong (so-called) things, and one is ignored, along with one’s work and oeuvre; post the right (so-called) things, and one’s work is read (my own analytics bear this out) but one courts judgement in the process, along with distinct and narrow forms of categorization. One risks judgment and labels as well: dumb, shallow, vain, needy, an attention-whore, wannabe, poser, super-bitch. Bimbo. Dilettante. Sycophant.

All of these labels (and worse) run through my head whenever I post anything imagistic; I often wish there was a “reduce giant boobs” filter that might lessen such anxieties, but then I wonder if it’s really me who has the problem(s). My mother certainly didn’t think so. Years ago she and I attended the opening night of an opera season; it turned out to be her final one. A night of dressing up was a blessed bit of relief between chemotherapy sessions and hospital runs, and she looked so pleased and proud as watched me descend the stairs of our house wearing a black, strapless Yves Saint Laurent vintage piece (found in a consignment shop for a song), a dress that fit perfectly. I knew there would be hate-filled stares entering the members’ lounge – those always greeted me, they were predictable, if very wearing; I was good at pretending such nastiness didn’t bother me; I still am. “I love how you scoop your hair up and put your shoulders back and stick your bust out and don’t care what anyone thinks,” she said later that night. I didn’t have to look at the faces in the lounge to actually feel their all-too-clear judgments; I threw my head back indeed, jutted chin out, batted eyelashes, gave a tremendous smile. It’s a skill I have come to perfect. To quote Marquise de Merteuil (from Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons; play 1985, film 1988), “I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork onto the back of my hand.” Add to that making a tremendous middle finger.

There exists in my closet a lovely line of beautiful gowns, one a sumptuous, sweeping, super-low-backed, very fitted number, ordered in a fit of restlessness amidst the worst of the pandemic last year. I slipped it on at New Year’s in an attempt to summon some needed optimism. “If I ever have the nerve to wear this publicly,” I thought, “at least I’ll know what’s required.” (Two rolls of tape, carefully applied, and even more carefully removed; I will use more if and when that time ever comes.) But dare I court the inevitable judgment if I wear it? Dare I risk dumping whatever little professional credibility I might have (and have fought for), all for the sake of my innate love of fashion, and an even more innate need to feel the joy of wearing something that actually fits, and amidst (sigh, post) pandemic times, when dressing up is a pleasure that has been so long denied? I think, to a certain extent, many women, especially us large-breasted ones, are raised to ignore, to carry on, to try to keep head held high (when our necks and shoulders aren’t screaming in agony), and to fight against the high tides of judgement while riding the big, bouncy waves of attention. The digital era has brought a keen awareness of the pressures of playing to desire, of its inherently performative nature, of the idea of “sexy” being somehow divorced from presence (in the symbolic sense), of the lines between fantasy and reality blurring, of the perceived “power” in playing to a male-gaze-y algorithm that dictates what is seen, when, how, by whom. Susan Sontag wrote, in a 1999 essay “A photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” (published in Women (Random House, 1999), a book of photography by Annie Leibovitz) thusly:

To be feminine, in one commonly felt definition, is to be attractive, or to do one’s best to be attractive; to attract. (As being masculine is being strong.) While it is perfectly possible to defy this imperative, it is not possible for any woman to be unaware of it. As it is thought a weakness in a man to care a great deal about how he looks, it is a moral fault in a woman not to care “enough.” Women are judged by their appearance as men are not, and women are punished more than men are by the changes brought about by aging. Ideals of appearance such as youthfulness and slimness are in large part now created and enforced by photographic images. And, of course, a primary interest in having photographs of well-known beauties to look at over the years is seeing just how well or badly they negotiate the shame of aging.

As an aging albeit large-chested woman with a chosen online presence – one I require and have cultivated as a freelance writer and educator within a particularly narrow cultural field – I am simultaneously aware of both the judgement and the attention, the inherent risk of professional punishment, and virtue-patrolling, to say nothing of professional discreditation and social ostracization, all of which run concomitant with potential benefits and possible advancement. (Whether that advancement manifests in actual dollars and opportunities remains to be seen, and various classical and academic ingenues might tell you something similar, however quietly.) Damned if you do; damned if you don’t; such has always been the case for women, and never more so than now, in the pandemic-ridden 21st century, whence a screen is professional, social, political, cultural, creative, and personal, all in one. My mother’s pre-boomer, always-wear-lipstick generation didn’t have to face this, but then, if she had, I’d suspect she’d be very popular.

My mother had a ballet dancer’s body: a long torso, long legs, just-right shoulders, a long neck, and perfectly (to me) small hips/bum/breasts. She had my ideal body shape, one I still covet and dream of having. Anything else, to my mind and literal body), is chubby, gross, vulgar. She was a “model” in the definition that still largely fuels the definition of Very Beautiful today. “You didn’t get those from me,” she’d say, staring at my chest. Shorter, fleshier women have a history of being placed into the tiresome bin labelled “curvaceous” (or the like), one that is wholly fantasy-driven and easy to discredit; she always used the word “voluptuous” as a compliment, but it never felt like one. I could never (and indeed cannot) find things that properly fit. While I’d watch my thin, small-breasted school friends go off and meet decent men, I always felt I’d been left with horny ones wanting naught but masturbatory entertainment. The work world was just as bad, if not worse. An early episode of the American television sitcom Three’s Company (1977-1984) features a large-breasted if wholly unqualified woman promoted over the more small-breasted Janet by a bug-eyed man in a cheap suit who speaks in a lusty rasp. The woman later visits Janet at her apartment, resigning in a fit of shame and exasperation, and explains the realities of navigating a world in which men only see breasts (and their related sexual desires) without seeing the attached whole person. “They say things like, “why don’t you stand over me and keep the rain off, baby!”” she says, holding back tears.

These days of course, that woman would have a huge Instagram following, post pictures of herself in tiny bikinis, call herself “empowered” and many would simply seal-clap along. I’m not so sure; to borrow from Charles Laughton’s character in the 1957 film Witness For The Prosecution, that line of thinking feels “too neat, too tidy, and altogether too symmetrical…” (Note: most breasts are not, in fact, symmetrical, let alone sitting at attention when one lies on one’s back; they tend to sloppily nod off to armpits, gravity being the great downer in all senses.) Swimwear always presents a challenge; modest is realistic if boring, but finding something that fits is impossible. I don’t own a bikini, and if I did, I wouldn’t wear it publicly, let alone post pictures of myself in it. “Be proud!” shout the masses, “do your thing!” The problem is, all the male things go up whenever I reveal too much tit in public, and though i can’t control the reactions, I hate that I inspired them at all, and find myself wishing, at such moments, after a galling incident or smutty, unwished-for attention, that I had those perfect, tiny, pert, ballet-dancer breasts. The scars, the pain, the thought of going into a hospital at all right now… tell me to sit, round-shouldered, and do another round of dreary sit-ups. Apparently strong abs are helpful, but they’ve yet to relieve an ounce of the pain.

Following my second vaccination, I came home and changed into a low-backed bodysuit, one I would never wear in public – too revealing, too honest, too real. (I love it.) ‘Real breasts versus fantasy ones’ is a distinction that needs to be made (one might say this about female bodies overall) – I consciously thought this, putting that bodysuit on – but the need to recognize that distinction points more directly at a need to acknowledge real people versus fantasy figures. A 2013 production of Manon Lescaut from Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), directed by Mariusz Treliński and featuring Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, caught my attention for just this reason. How refreshing, to see the soprano floppy-haired and braless and perspiration-soaked in the last act; yes, it’s the character, and yes it’s the opera, and of course, it’s part of the setting, but this was not the highly-stylized, romantic, dewy-doe-eyed suffering so often seen on opera stages. The transformation felt real, raw, and very visceral; it dared to explode the sexy-babe mythos into a thousand pieces, and dared its audience to see what was left. I wondered about two things, concurrently, as it concluded: Westbroek’s corseting (or apparent lack thereof, which is brave, and shouldn’t be, and yet) and, what would my opera-loving, glamour-obsessed mother make of it. In her younger years she so much resembled the younger Manon, poised and smiling across numerous images in photo albums spanning many decades. One shot features her wearing a green polka-dot bikini; she used to like to tell people how much she weighed when it was taken, some ridiculously low number, hiding the actual truth of her self-starving then, her utter self-loathing in fact, dating someone who eventually threw her over, having treated her like a diversion, a bit of fantasy, a sex doll. She wasn’t “curvy”; she didn’t have large breasts. I remember meeting him years ago, before she passed, wondering at her being so reserved around him then; I don’t wonder now.

And so I look at my closet-fulls of dresses, some of them my mother’s, many of them, like my underthings, full of pins and awaiting the skilled touch of my ever-patient tailor, and I wonder if I’ll ever wear any of them again. Do I want to? Dare I? Can I be floppy-haired, braless Manon and still have any worth? Still ignite any true desire? Does it matter? Can I be busty, non-music-degree-holding Catherine and still be perceived with any seriousness? Should I feel okay with being reduced? Am I not already? Oh, how I long for a good fit. A trip to the moon, even for a few hours, would not be so bad either; my shoulders, like much else, could use the rest. Maybe this is the season to fly, to not feel small, to not shrink, but to jut chin out, pull shoulders back, and at last, to truly smile, even, as the times dictate, it will be behind a mask or two.

Ilker Arcayürek: “Whatever You Sing, You Have To Sing It With Your Voice”

Ilker Arcayürek, tenor, opera, singer, voice, vocal, portrait, sing, lieder

Photo: Janina Laszlo

Throughout the pandemic era the experience, or more precisely, lack of experience, in relation to human connection has been repeatedly underlined, in both large and small ways. How might that be attained through the glare of a monitor, the click of a mouse, the sound of a faraway voice resonating through tinny speakers? As life restarts and returns to some form of normal in certain areas, an unusual if somewhat predictable paradox reveals itself, for while the understanding of human connection has risen, its evolved expression has not; indeed, there are far fewer expressions of empathy than one might’ve hoped. The compassion deficit borne of the coronavirus experience is an issue yet to be worked out and in many cases acknowledged at all, particularly within the realm of culture, where new and old ways of being have collided (and occasionally enmeshed) with mixed results. People power culture, and this is a point worth remembering as the “new normal” unfolds. Such is it that the experience of chamber music, and particularly the art of song, comes into focus for some, for it is within such a realm where one might experience, however intangibly for now, the lifeblood of those people, and the sense of connection with them which is still very much missing in so many lives.

Tenor Ilker Arcayürek radiates this quality of warmth in bundles, whether on stage, in recordings, or through various online performances. His beautiful album of Schubert songs, The Path Of Life (Prospero Classical), recorded with pianist Simon Lepper, nicely conveys Arcayürek’s deft talent in handling difficult material, rendering the sometimes cold and over-intellectualized lied form with grace, intelligence, and genuine human warmth. The album, released earlier this year, is a showcase of vocal and interpretive gifts, the tenor’s rendering of “Dass sie hier gewesen” (“That She Has Been Here”) colored with the pungent longing so clearly expressed in both Friedrich Rückert’s poem and the mournful lines Schubert wove in and around them. The way he lingers on specific syllables, modulates volume between and around vowels, the careful coloration and phrasing, the watchful breath control and achingly sensitive delivery – all this, combined with Lepper’s sure-footed playing, makes for a rewarding, deeply enriching listening experience which highlights the humanity so central to the best lieder experience.

This human approach might have been influenced by a decidedly unconventional path for a classical singer. Born in Turkey but raised in Austria, singing figured prominently in Alcayürek’s youth, but conservatory training did not. In his youth Alcayürek worked a variety of odd jobs (not unlike pianist Lucas Debargue), and, as he told Turkish news site TRT World in 2018, “(o)ver time the singing got more and more, and I decided to try and live from (it)“, a decision that led to him being spotted by a casting director from Oper Zürich; he became a member of the company’s prestigious International Opera Studio, and remained, from 2009 to 2013. From there Alcayürek joined the respective ensembles at Stadttheater Klagenfurt (2013-2015) and Staatstheater Nürnberg (2015-18), performing a variety of roles, including famous Mozart-penned ones like Tamino (Die Zauberflöte) Ferrando (Così fan tutte), Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni), and the title role Idomeneo, as well as Puccini’s celebrated Rodolfo in La bohème. Since then, he has performed at Teatro Real Madrid, the Salzburg Festival, Volksoper Wien, and the Munich Opera Festival, among many others. In 2015 Alcayürek was finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World; the same year saw him as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist; in 2016, he won the International Art Song Competition of Germany’s Hugo Wolf Academy. Summer 2019 saw him make his American opera debut, with Santa Fe Opera, as Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. His concert repertoire includes Bruckner (Alcayürek performed the composer’s Mass in F minor with Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks), Liszt (Faust Symphony, with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre National de Belgique), and Bach (both the St Matthew and St. John’s Passions; the former with Orchestre national de Lyon and Kenneth Montgomery, the latter with the Academy of Ancient Music and Riccardo Minasi). Arcayürek has also performed the immensely challenging vocal portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and more than once: with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018, under the baton of David Parry, and on a Naxos recording with conductor Ádám Fischer and the Danish Chamber Orchestra, part of a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, released in 2019.

Balancing such grand orchestral sounds is the devotion Alcayürek has shown toward the decidedly more intimate world of lieder. The Edinburgh International Festival, the Innsbruck Festwochen, the Schubertiada Vilabertran (Spain), and the deSingel Antwerp, are just a few of the venues in which he has given recitals; in 2018 he told writer Frances Wilson that the celebrated Wigmore Hall, where he has also notably performed and recorded, is a place in which he feels “very well linked to the audience.” The distinctly larger Park Avenue Armory in NYC was the location of the tenor’s American recital debut in 2019 alongside pianist Simon Lepper, with whom he also recorded his debut disc in 2017, Der Einsame (Champs Hill Records). The title references not only the contents of Karl Lappe’s poem, but the idea of solitude as a state of being, one Arcayürek explores in various facets throughout the album’s 23 tracks. As he writes in the album notes, “(w)e can find ourselves alone as the result of many different circumstances in life – unhappiness in love, a bereavement, or simply moving to another country. For me, however, being alone has never meant being ‘lonely’. As in Schubert’s song Der Einsame, I try to enjoy the small things in life, and, especially in those times when I am alone, to consciously take time out of everyday life and reflect on my own experiences.” At the time of the album’s release, Alcayürek was praised by The Guardian’s Erica Jeal for his “airy, easily ringing tenor that puts across words beautifully, with power in reserve yet a hint of vulnerability too.

It’s that very vulnerability, and the willingness to explore it through careful musical means and smart creative choices, which makes Alcayürek’s artistry so special, particularly now in the time of pandemic; perhaps the classical music world needs the sort of sensitivity and compassion which are so inherently a part of his approach. We started off our chat by discussing the ways in which perceptions of solitude have shifted as a result of the “new normal” and how this “new” aspect led him to perform the music of Benjamin Britten, which he performed back in March in a livestream with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

Ilker Arcayürek, tenor, opera, singer, voice, vocal, stage, performance, Puccini, Nürnberg, role

As Rodolfo in Staatstheater Nürnberg’s production of La bohème, 2015. (Photo: Jutta Missbach)

What has your experience been through this time?

It’s been an opportunity I would say; every challenge has good parts and also negative parts. But I see (this era) as a call to use my time for another approach, another way. I get the chance to spend more time with my daughter, which is great, and I have the chance to explore my barista qualities, and to work on my latte art! You also recognize the small successes of life, and realize every day has new challenges – this became my motto, actually: you realize that singing is very important – it’s nice, making music, it’s essential – but on the other hand, you realize how much you have missed in the last couple of years by spending time on different things.

Those “different things” took in new meanings in the pandemic; has this been the case for you?

Definitely. But it’s strange to talk about! It’s like talking to a psychotherapist, because on the one side I do miss being in a hotel, I miss being on my own sometimes, because I used to be lonely and it became part of my life, to be lonely and on my own a lot, and have time to think about things, and now suddenly, you are responsible for the dishes, you are responsible for the cooking, you are responsible for all these things you missed out on in not being home – and also you are very involved in raising your child. It’s things like that you think about now. And it can be difficult to balance everything.

And I’d imagine having an album out now too, and seeing things slowly reopen in some places, underlines that divide.

Yes, for sure.

How much has your approach to singing has changed? Is there any stress at moving between the various-sized venues which are so much a part of any singer’s career?

Not very much, because every performance is a live performance and I react to the reaction of the audience. That’s especially important when you come from the chamber music world. It’s easier to get in contact with the audience in that world, and to react, and to get their reactions, than what happens on the opera stage, because on the opera stage you just see a dark room usually – you don’t have the faces you can rely on. When I sing Schubert and I see somebody crying, I am touched and I know I am in real contact with that person, and so then I try to bring the audience to me, somehow. I do the same in opera, or try to, but it doesn’t matter the size (of the venue); you have to just be connected with the music and then not act – you know, like “act” – something (which could be construed as) sincere but be as honest as possible in that moment.

But is that honesty easier to access now, because of the pandemic? You along with many musicians have been forced to examine your own approach to your work, and that related sense of honesty, in relation to music-making for over a year now.

It’s like this: when you make this music, when you perform, it’s all about honesty. And for me, I try to find a relationship between each song and my life. There are some funny songs like, “I wish I were a fish” (“Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Fisch“) – so it’s happy, and if you read this music, and read these kinds of poems, it has nothing to do with our time, but the honesty and the message within those songs has everything to do with our time. You could make a tweet instead of writing this type of poem now. The message and the honesty within a work like this will always survive, so this is what I try to do, to convey the honesty of this music to our reality now, because we all know the pain of love, and the nice moments too, and also the moments of reflection, or the moments of acceptance, and this human desire, these deep wishes – I try to bring out all of that during music-making. Yes, these are also the topics which people from the 18th and 19th centuries were working with, and they are still up-to-date.

How much do you think there is more of a place now for lieder, and chamber music – these smaller more intimate musical experiences? In my chat with Helmut Deutsch earlier this year, he seemed to think the pandemic had opened a new door for the art form. 

I think lieder, and the way people think of it, is changing a bit.

How so?

You have to see it from an historical perspective. Lied was quite popular after the Second World War, but it was performed with a different approach, and in a different way than it is now. Lied was like, how can I say this, like a theatre piece, performed as a piece of art but maybe not with the same view, like I personally bring now, because emotions were kind of forbidden in that period, so it was more to bring people joy after this time of suffering.

As artsy escapism?

Yes, it was more like singing nice melodies, like a form of escapism, as you say, and I think now it is about time to break that, and say, “I am a musician, reading my own poem, and bringing this to you, and trying to explain my own personal story.” I think this is the next level we have to achieve. Also it’s vital to make lieder, the art of lied, interesting for a broader audience – the big difference between lied in the 1950s and nowadays is that people were educated about it in school, and they knew the poems which make up the text of these works. But nowadays people don’t know the poems. So getting to know these written works and their authors is another way to explain it, and to bring the audience into this music, and into the poetry, into this artwork overall, like the understand which existed before.

Maybe one small story: the first time I sang in New York was at the Park Avenue Armoury, and there was a young couple sitting in the first row and they were quite fashionably attired, the guy in the couple looked like a rock star; we met afterwards in a bar by chance, this place where we all went for a drink, and he said that he’s also a musician, and although he didn’t understand a word I sang and didn’t know the music either, he felt the emotions inside. So he understood on this other level. That was a very interesting experience for me, to hear that – I really liked it! And I think this is exactly what it’s about, to transport emotions, and not play them falsely but to live them. Singing this music needs a lot of life experience. For certain pieces I sing I think of various aspects in my own life, and these things make me emotional, and I try to express myself in a way that touches on those things.

Good lieder should connect to real life experience – and some of us can’t applaud at the end because we’re processing everything…

I prefer when people don’t applaud immediately after my singing.

Do you?

Yes! For me, pauses, within the music but also after the music, are really important, so I really try to also have a moment of silence. I really enjoy that, especially after signing a cycle like Winterreise; I think it’s important to digest the music for a while, and then applaud, or not.

How does that translate to a venue like Santa Fe? What was that experience like?

Scary! I loved it a lot, but it’s scary, because the winds can be a challenge. It’s open-air, so you are affected by the weather, and it can be very cold, very hot, very windy, and suddenly there’s lightning; you see the clouds moving around and you think, “Oh no my aria is coming! If the winds come in on this side, will people hear me if I stand there?”” But oh, it was a very nice, very special experience, and I’m so glad I did it.

And it’s quite large, isn’t it?

It’s huge, I think it’s more than a 2000-seat capacity.

The other houses you’ve sung at are such a contrast – Zürich is very jewel box, for instance.

… especially in Zürich, yes. And it has a really good acoustic, and the seating, the way that’s built, was done with an angle, so the acoustic lifts up, which makes it easy to sing in. It also gives the singer the opportunity to step back and not sing at 100%, so you can create more colors, you can be very musical. Because of that (design), you are not using your full capacity, so you always have 20% left. My teacher said that in such a spot you are singing with your, how do you say it in English, it’s like with a bank account, you don’t sing with your capital, you sing with your…

Interest?

Yes, the word I was looking for, interest! (Jewel box-sized spaces) give you the freedom of playing around and not going to the very, very edge, and then if you do go to that edge once or twice, it’s to build up a climax.

Zürich, opera, opera house, performance, music, classical, culture, Opernhaus Zürich, ceiling, interior, design, jewel box, stage

Interior, Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Indeed, one is able to hear so many colors in that house. You were part of the opera studio program in Zürich, yes?

I was in the opera studio at Zürich – most of the time I sang smaller parts during my years there. I used Zürich as my study spot actually, and I got some stage experience from singing in choir before, so (working at) Zürich was useful to get some confidence and security onstage, to find one’s self.

It seemed like a good place for that, and not only because of the singer-friendly acoustic.

I must say, it’s still one of the best houses. During the time of Alexander Pereira, the former opera director (Intendant of Oper Zürich, 1991-2012), it was filled with all the stars of the business – Netrebko, Nucci, Hampson, Bartoli, Camarena, and Kaufmann as well, to name a few – so it was just great for me to observe those artists, to be around them, to work onstage with them; you get so much input by seeing these people and getting the chance to be close to them. You also get to know in which places they save their voice, where there is the possibility to do that, when they go on their edge and how – things like that. I was amazed at being part of the whole thing. Later when I came to Klagenfurt, the first time maybe, of course, it was clear the orchestra was different, and there were challenges, but you find new ways to deal with those challenges, and ways to grow through them. Nürnberg was my first state opera experience, so it was a bigger orchestra again, and my debut there was La bohème of course – and I can tell you, the first time, with a German orchestra playing Puccini, is also not so easy! And in comparison to Zürich the acoustic in Nürnberg is, again, not the same either. So you have to adapt to each room, to each space, each orchestra, and you have to find your strategy in how to manage the whole situation, and your role within that situation.

That’s a good education is it not?

It is definitely good! As a singer you will always learn new things and adapt to situations, so after the pandemic I’m really curious what will happen with artists; I’m sure some singers will struggle, at least for a while, until they get back to shape. You can sing as much as you want at home, but it isn’t the same as singing on a stage, and you won’t have the same feeling of adrenaline and excitement. It’s another level of singing, like for a basketball player, the difference between the training and then the game. When you have people in front of you, it’s difficult to make that throw the same way.

Some singers have expressed those kinds of concerns; how much have your pandemic activities helped set the stage, to whatever extent, to going back to the actual stage?

I haven’t been singing recently so much. My last project was in March, so not so long ago, but it was during that experience that I sang, for the first time, the Serenade (Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings) by Benjamin Britten with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and it was in a hall which is not so big. It was like a normal concert venue size – and it was different to sing not for an audience who’d normally be there, but for the microphone, because it was a broadcast concert, so.

That’s a whole new skill, one many are learning: how to sing for the internet.

Exactly! I mean, I have had some background in recording and singing for radio or for CD, but this project was still a new experience for me because I was singing for an audience without having an audience, so it was a mix between live performance, where you sing for the audience, and a CD recording, where you don’t. It was something in-between.

So was that Britten piece back in March a sign of things to come?

I wish I would sing more of it, actually, because the music is, for me, it was… musical love at second sight. Can I say that?!

Yes, that’s precisely my experience of Britten’s music too.

Really, it just happens sometimes with some composers!

Well I wasn’t raised to his work…

… me either! I was raised more to the music of Schubert and Mozart and so on, because I sang at the age of 9 in a boys’ choir, and we never got in touch with the music of Britten, we weren’t raised with it, like in the UK for example, when you sing Britten in choir, so it’s a totally new world for me and a new language, not the English language, but the musical language – the harmonies, for instance – but I really, really enjoyed singing this piece, I must say! I was surprised at how much I liked it.

It suits the timbral quality of your voice, and you bring a warmth to music which is not always perceived as warm (rightly or wrongly!) – but your approach is very sensitive.

Whatever you sing, you have to sing it with your voice. And yet there is always the sound of Peter Pears in one’s ear, or head, when singing this music. People know these pieces through Pears’ recordings. Friends in the UK said, “It’s hard to imagine you singing this because we have it in our ear with Peter Pears”, so I really tried not to adapt or imitate at all, but to sing it my way. Also, these pieces are a fit for me, I think, because they’re like singing lied but with some moments more operatic – it can be difficult to find the right balance, to find colors, which you need, which are connections with that world of lied, but also with the technique which requires operatic singing. It’s interesting, his music is right on the edge for me, and singing his work is a balancing game.

I want to hear you sing more Britten.

I hope I do more of it! We shall see what the future holds.

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Essay: Coming Back To Live, Maybe

“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, so says Hamlet, in Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s famous play, and indeed, the phrase holds several painful truths for our times. The sad news of the passing of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig at the weekend was met with a chorus of loving tributes and tender memories. That such an event occured amidst the hodge-podge of COVID-forced closures and reopenings inspired numerous listenings of her past work and moments of melancholy if vital contemplation.

Music, and the will toward its live presentation, has taken on a potent symbolism amidst pandemic; that will never really went away in certain places, while in others it has vanished entirely. Marketing buzzwords (“pivot” and “experience” and “reimagine) seem to be clothing a nifty, selfie-snapping holographic Emperor I’m not sure I’m ready to applaud. As digital producer Jon Jacob highlights in a recent blog post, the way certain forms of music – and more broadly, culture – are perceived has heavily colored large swaths of its current presentation and much-awaited in-person iteration. The past year-plus has forced a much closer connection to sounds and sights, solidifying and simultaneously blurring the relationships to entertainment, escapism, imagination, and immersion. Thus has music – sound as much as visual counterpart – become far more immediate and simultaneously distant, heightening the consciousness of directed attention, specifically in relation to one’s perceptions of time. Neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann explores this issue in Felt Time: The Science Of How We Experience Time (The MIT Press, 2017; translation Erik Butler):

Where full attention is lacking, intensive experience is impossible. […] Presence is not simply a matter of mental focus; it also concerns the corporeality of the moment. The experience of presence occurs when body and mind, space and time, constitute a unity: here and now.”
(Chapter 3, In the Moment: Three Seconds of Presence)

Somewhat ironically, I have yet to see Wiener Staatsoper’s new production of Parsifal directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, and featuring Jonas Kaufmann and Elina Garanca; Wagner himself decreed that his final opera should, as Bachtrack‘s Mark Valencia succinctly put it, “be reserved exclusively for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in order to avoid the “Entweihung” (sacrilege) of merely entertaining opera-goers.” Those of us who thrive on the experience of the live in all its sensual glory have been (continue to be) forced to gawk at a glassy, glowing image ready-made for entertaining diversion. The immediacy which live experience so thrives on is now mediated through headphones, screens, speakers. Occasionally there is the unwelcome noise pollution of traffic and neighbours seeping through thin, uninsulated walls and ventilation shafts. Pressing hands against speakers does not, in any way, fade ugly circumstances out and bring something better back in, but oh, the intention is good, and surely that must count for something.

Intention is what seems to be guiding so many of us these days, for good or bad, and the most seemingly simple acts are, paradoxically, sometimes the most heroic; such is oft-contradictory nature of the times. Entering a big-box store pharmacy to get my first vaccination last week, I longed to hear some kind of music that wasn’t the determinedly busy-buzzy rock-pop every store seems to now pipe through its gaggle of tinny speakers. (It seemed wistful to want for the days of Muzak, and yet.) As I tried not to be alarmed at the full parking lot and number of shoppers (how is this acceptable but attending – giving –  a chamber concert, indoors or outdoors, is not?), a fashionably-attired mother-daughter team passed within inches of me, the younger member giving me a disdainful stare as I sat perched on the edge of a chair with a specially-marked area of tape around its perimeter. I stuck out my legs thereafter, feet touching tape, toes beating out a hurried, pseudo-tap “La donna è mobile”, comically sarcastic if self-soothing. It brought to mind memories of my own mother shopping at a certain supermarket because the owner would always put on opera at her visits; she would merrily bob her head along to that very aria as she picked up the week’s supplies. Not everyone has such (supposedly) fancy tastes, I realize, but then, my mother would say that classical music isn’t at all fancy. “That’s stupid,” she once said in relation to all this. “Just sit there and listen.”

It wasn’t Verdi but Mahler I had floating through the brain, or rather, heart, the day I received my first vaccination. The sounds of Das Lied von der Erde came floating in and out of the ears, its closing lines undulating like multicolor waves against the aisles of colorless boxes within view:

Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt

Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!

Ewig… ewig… 

A picture of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig came into mind’s eye, not of her performing this work, but from her final concert in Vienna in 1994; the poise, confidence, and grace were buoys against those long, grey aisles, and the prick of a needle behind a closer door moments later. Just sit. Just listen.

I do not recall the first time I ever heard  Ludwig’s voice, it was simply present, like oxygen – sensitive, feeling, alive. It was the famous 1964 Warner Classics recording of Das Lied von der Erde, featuring the mezzo soprano, together with Fritz Wunderlich and conductor Otto Klemperer, that led me back to a classical path I had strayed from for over a decade. In NPR’s tribute to Ludwig, music writer Anne Midgette notes that “If you want to sing German, you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling, but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory.” I think the warmth Midgette is referring to here (I think it’s that) extends to Ludwig’s performances of Mahler’s repertoire as much as to formal lieder. The phrasing, the pauses, the careful breaths, the coloring, the tremendous control and modulation – there is so much technique to be found and (rightly) marvelled at, whether in opera, art song, or orchestral work, but there is also a deeply felt humanity. Ludwig knew the lines well enough to know she could draw – really, really well – outside of them, and she trusted both her onstage colleagues and her audiences to follow her along on those journeys. To be confident about your choices as an artist is one thing; to be confident about showing such authenticity, as a woman and a public figure, is quite another.

In her wonderfully-titled memoir (“In My Own Voice”, Limelight, 2004), Ludwig wrote that “(c)ourage is needed to reveal one’s own feelings in interpretation and not tell the audience with raised forefinger: “The composer wanted it like this, and no other way.”” There must be room for that flow and confidence, but oh, what an uphill battle it can be for an aging woman to cultivate either (or both) of them within the confines of contemporary (and digital) culture. Courage, to paraphrase Ludwig, has indeed been needed. I stood at my easel this past weekend, for the first time in almost a year, and rather magically, I didn’t hear the mewls of insecurity which so often (and loudly) screamed; energy goes where attention goes, and the direction of it, like surgical incision, must be precise, flow allowed without judgement. Leaving doors open means allowing a spiritual kind of lüften; thus emanating from the carefully-placed speakers on Saturday was Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Strauss’s 1919 metaphysical opera about creation, connection, choice, and unique identity. Christa Ludwig sang in the very first Met presentation of this opera back in 1966, as the Dyer’s Wife, alongside then-husband Walter Berry as Barak. My first time seeing this opera live was in 2013, a conscious if rebellious (and ultimately life-changing) decision to skip a graduate school class.

The memory of that live experience still washes over me, a wet, warm, salty blanket of timbres and textures and tones, and instead of drowning, my fins make a happy, flapping return; I’ve been swimming upstream ever since, and over the past six years, negotiating an ocean of loss. Learning to live with less (people, opportunities, money, food, space, fun, conversation, closeness, trust, touch) has meant learning to be more careful in directing the sort of attention and presence to which Wittman alludes. I listen (read, watch, speak, and write, I hope) in very different ways, and relistening to Ludwig’s work recently, I was struck by the extent to which everything – the whirl of fans within, the din of traffic without – simply stopped. Her “ewig” is here, for us, for me, for this moment, and, somehow, feels hyper-concentrated: forever, right now, stay present, that voice entreats. And so, reapproach, recalibrate, reimagine: buzzwords for the era of coronavirus, advice for the will to return to culture, fortitude for colouring outside the lines. One has to trust one’s instincts; if others choose to follow, so much the better. Defy augury, that voice continues to whisper, the readiness is all.

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Lecturing, Improvising, And Russian Piano Music: A Chat With Marina Frolova-Walker

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Toward the end of her life my mother would chide me for what she perceived as prolonged screen time. “You are always at that damn computer,” she’d sigh, “but I suppose you have to think about your audience and what they’d like to read.” What with everyone spending longer and more concentrated time in front of screens amidst the current coronavirus crisis, the lines between education, entertainment, and enlightenment can be fraught indeed. As an educator and writer, I frequently have to balance my desire to share information with a deeply-held urge to entertain, and then be able to skillfully juggle the added ball of measured impact. Those of us whose work is largely based in or around the internet (i.e. writers, artists, musicians) are at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms; we want to have our work seen, but we want to keep our voices and ideas intact. Playing to the desired young audience many classical institutions now eagerly pursue should, I suppose, be a priority, but playing to such an audience is not easy when you are no longer young yourself, not comfortable changing the nature of your work (or its presentation), and have an innate awareness that it is not desirable (or very dignified) as an aging woman with highly specialist passions and specifically artsy tastes, to attempt to compete with young/cute/sexy/etc. And yet, to note one’s work being read, shared, engaged with, and sense it is having an impact – it is gratifying. To play to the algorithm, or not to play to the algorithm; this is the question.

This juggling act can become even more complex when it is one’s modus operandi to impart what you feel is vital information whilst providing a modicum of inspiration which might (possibly, hopefully) encourage independent exploration, on and off the screen. Gresham College has been able to do all of these things, with incredible style and success, specifically through its Russian Piano Masterpieces series, featuring Professor Frolova-Walker and pianist Peter Donohoe. Introduced in September 2020, the series consists of what can only be described as lecture-conversation-concerts – in-depth, one-hour explorations of the history, structure, harmonics, and socio-economic-creative contexts of composers and their respective (if oftentimes linked) outputs. Frolova-Walker specializes in Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has published, lectured and had her work broadcast on BBC Radio 3; along with being Professor of Music History and Director of Studies in Music at Clare College, Cambridge, she is a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2015, she was recognized for her work in musicology and awarded the Edward Dent Medal by the Royal Musical Association. Peter Donohoe, CBE, is a celebrated international pianist who, since his winning the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, has worked with a range of conductors, including Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gustavo Dudamel, and Sir Simon Rattle. He has appeared at the BBC Proms no less than twenty-two times, and is steeped in the music of the composers who are featured in the series, though he also has vast experience with the music of Tchaikovsky, whose music Frolova-Walker had also wanted to include as part of the series, as she explains below.

The wonderfully easy rapport between Frolova-Walker and Donohoe – their mix of playfulness, intelligence, insight, experience, and genuine love of the material – makes the series a special event amidst pandemic gloom, and their impressive viewing numbers seem to confirm this. Algorithm or not, the series has hit a nerve with numerous classical-loving, culturally starving viewers; newcomers and old hands alike have been tuning in faithfully these past six months and interacting with good-humoured ease, judging (if one dares) from the comments shared and exchanged during live broadcasts. Indeed Frolova-Walker and Donohue do have their sizeable and frequently overlapping fan bases, but it’s heartening to note the embrace with which those fans have greeted a virtual presentation, and just how welcoming the community has been to newcomers. It was something of a thrill to chat recently for thirty minutes with Professor Frolova-Walker, whose work and style I have long admired, and to discuss not only the series itself, but wider ideas about classical music’s youth appeal (or not), how and why fashion intersects with events (or not), and the steep digital learning curve experienced by educators and artists alike over the past twelve months. The next presentation in Russian Piano Masterpieces is scheduled for Thursday, March 25th (at 6pm GMT), and explores the music of Sergei Prokofiev; the following presentation (the final one in the series) is on May 20th, about Dmitri Shostakovich.

How and why did this series come about?

Good question! When I applied to Gresham College I secretly was hoping I could get Peter to collaborate with me. Gresham College has been so proactive in using a different venue they don’t usually use, because we needed a piano. About a year ago we found out they managed to secure it, and I was absolutely delighted because it’s such a wonderful venue, everything is there; of course we couldn’t imagine how it would turn out, because it was planned as a live event, always. It was *never* supposed to be online. I mean, the online presence of Gresham College lectures was always an afterthought – it’s not the main thing, so you shouldn’t imagine we planned it as an online series at all – but emotionally it started with this great feeling of despair that we could only get 15 people. The next time we couldn’t get anyone, and then we got used to it. Now we’re just grateful for the opportunity, even if it’s in an empty hall! Really, it’s been a learning curve.

I would imagine part of that curve has involved upping technological skills, as has been the case with so many in the classical world.

I’m not sure I can claim anything in that field, really! The big moment was when, a year ago exactly, I was told I would have to do my other course, my Diaghilev lecture series, online; that was really… I was in complete panic, because basically I’m a person who draws energy from the audience. About 50% of my energy comes from the audience, from improvising in front of an audience, and in seeing their reactions. And suddenly, to not have this energy… I thought, “I can’t do this; I can’t write out text and read it. That isn’t me. I can’t do it properly!” So that was I think the worst, the steepest learning curve. It was primitive what I used – I just recorded myself and it was edited by someone else, but I had to actually speak to the camera and still have it be lively.

Marina Frolova-Walker, Professor, Gresham College, lecture, musicology, portrait, Russian

Photo via Gresham College

I find you very engaging – knowledgeable, passionate, with a really good understanding of pace and structure; I wonder if that’s because you have an artist’s understanding of the role of audience already.

It’s just something that was given to me. I think it’s one of the few gifts that I *was* given. Really, it’s not a gift of speaking coherently at all! But there’s something about connecting with an audience, which I was able to do since I was 19. I did my first lecture at that age, at a college in Moscow, and there were these students completely bored; they were basically forced into this room, it was their cultural program, they had to be there, and I was talking about Bach, and something just clicked at a certain moment, and they seemed to be really enjoying it so it was an opening. And I realized, “I want to do this” – but I don’t know what I do or how. It is just something I suppose I am predisposed to doing. And I’m sure I could learn to do it better, but I wouldn’t know how.

There has been a learning curve for everyone; my own output has been transformed and I’ve had to learn to release the need to know the immediate impact of my work on others.

It has been difficult, doing a series of undergrad lectures in an empty room, and there’s no connection! The previous year I was doing them so much better because I had the power of the audience. But what can you do?

Nothing. But it’s so hard sometimes…

It is!

… but things like your series help. How did you choose these composers and which pieces of music to feature in each segment?

When I was choosing which six to feature, it was very difficult because I had at least seven I wanted, but because I knew I’d be working with Peter, I looked at what he’d recorded and would play or remember, to bring it back to mind. One that is missing is Tchaikovsky; I would’ve loved to have had the music of Tchaikovsky as well, because Peter has a wonderful recording of his Grand Sonata and it’s a very I think undervalued work – people think it’s very loud and goes on forever, and I think it’s wonderful! So yes, Tchaikovsky had to fall off, but generally you know, I had some ideas of stories I could tell about some particular works, but then very often Peter would say, “Well let’s do this instead” and though it’s not what I planned it works perfectly, because there is no audience, and it’s not a concert. So it makes more sense to break things up, I think, and show different pieces in different ways.

Part of that method involves you and Peter trading various moments; how do you and Peter decide on these trade-offs in speaking, or do you just wing it?

I think you can guess!

I want you to tell me.

I think he believes in improvisation as much as I do, and you do, probably.

I do.

Right. So there is a certain amount of preplanning, but I think the interesting thing about this, and my thought behind it was, I’ve always known the way musicologists talk about music is very different from the way performers talk about it; I discovered that very early on when I travelled with a quartet. I was supposed to give a lecture about Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and then they’d play it; on the train (with quartet members) I was telling them my ideas and they were like, “Wow, we would’ve never thought of it in this way!” and some of them I know, like other performers, find some of these things weird. So I’m kind of… I know that some of the things musicologists say about music are completely opaque, and possibly the other way around is true as well, so these are two different approaches, and my idea was to see whether they can go together and whether people in the audience can gain a third thing which might emerge. As to what is working or not, it is not for me to judge.

Peter Donohue, pianist, performer, artist, music, classical

Photo via Gresham College

So musicologists, performers, and audience are in this interesting triangulation of musical reception and experience within the context of live experience specifically; where do you see the role of online presentation?

My idea, my vision for it, is that in principle (the series) can grab the attention of someone who is not into piano music, who is not into music at all, who doesn’t read notation or know many things about this, that they would get something out of it, maybe very different things from what what you could get out of it, or what my students would get out of it, or my colleagues would get out of it. Ideally I would like that *everyone* will get something out of it, and that’s why I think also, this series is so multilayered; those who, say, want to do a project on Shostakovich’s piano music, can watch it and stop and look at the slides, and get much more out of those slides than during the lecture itself, and download the transcript – which of course is not really the actual transcript, because I wrote it before the lecture, but it has references on things we cover. There is depth in it, and depth in varied slides. I don’t have time to address everything when we’re presenting it live, and especially when it’s an improvised performance, but I am secure the content is there, and if somebody wants to get at it in a deeper way, they’d be able to.

Do you imagine your potential audience and write to that, or… ?

You get a little bit of feedback on things, not ever, of course, as you would like, but you get a bit, and I know that some of my former students for example who work in schools, show it to their pupils, who are A-level music students. I know there are music lovers who tune in, but there are also people who are just into Gresham College lectures overall – because Gresham College lectures are amazing. I started getting into them as well, for instance, I listened to a lecture on bell-ringing and mathematical patterns, and about 25 minutes into it I was completely lost, the mathematics side stopped making sense, it was too complicated – but I could still enjoy what I got out of it. It’s still valuable as an experience. My attitude to everything, basically, is it’s better to have a part of something and not be a purist, instead of having the attitude of, “I don’t understand this at all; I won’t bother getting into it.” I think it’s the same with classical music. When you first listen to a Wagner opera you get about 5% of it, then after 30 listenings you get maybe 20% of it; I think this is very important for people who want to get into classical and feel it’s too forbidding. It’s a reminder not to be too hard on themselves.

Having things laid out clearly, with intelligence and confidence, and letting people use their imaginations as well, is a good way to introduce the classical idiom overall, I have found.

Yes, I think it’s good too – I mean, notation is such a hot topic right now, but it’s why I use it. I think even for people who’ve never seen it before, it’s like a diagram: you understand it when (the piece) goes up and when it goes down, and that’s all you need to know. The time goes like this, you have these two axes like that; just from those elements, you can get quite a lot. You can see how many notes there are, how fast it goes – roughly – so with this very basic knowledge you can get quite a lot of comprehension, just by looking at two bars of music, even if you don’t know what it sounds like.

That’s just it, and then having the immediate experience of hearing Peter play what might be shown too...

It’s amazing. I think the last lecture we did Peter sight-read a piece just straight off the screen – the whole piece! It was so funny!

When I spoke to John Daszak about singing reductions he mentioned working with Peter on the Das Lied Von Der Erde piano reduction and how he found it louder than the full orchestration, and Peter’s playing in particular to be very full-on.

People who would have been in the room to actually hear the sound… it’s *astounding*. What a loss not to hear him live. Our little group from Gresham College has been obviously privy to this, and myself, and you realize this kind of piano playing is completely on a different level; there’s nothing in common between how I play the piano and how Peter plays the piano, it’s just a different thing. First of all the range of sound, the range of pianissimo to fortissimo is six times bigger – he can be very loud but he can be very quiet too – and also the control is amazing, I don’t know to what extent… we are in the hands of the technical team, so many things can go wrong, but really, the live-ness can never be replaced.

I hear your lectures and all I want to do is hear these pieces live.

That’s nice to hear! Maybe we’ll have a CD sale at the last lecture. There’s a tiny bit of hope that by the 20th of May we’ll have an audience, but we’re not worried about this now, we’ve gotten used to it the way one gets used to chronic illness or chronic pain, but it’s not something you want to necessarily have permanently. When the restrictions are lifted I think, people will realize what they were missing.

Some, but it’s different for everybody.

I think you know this well, that what we need to realize is that there are different generations who have very different relationships with online. My son, for example, was born online and he lives online, and to him, it’s different, so I’m sure, he would enjoy things in the real world, so to speak. His attitude to online things is *very* different, and for that young audience I think the idea of a short video or something that is not actually a full-scale lecture but a short video, really well done and well presented, professionally done, expensively done, is the best possible teaching aid. And I think he would prefer those things to reading books, to having live lectures, I have a suspicion that young people think very differently about these things.

But then when you get them in the concert hall or opera house they are quite shocked at what they’re hearing –in a good way, but shocked nonetheless. “What do you mean it’s not amplified?!” etc…

Oh, it’s amazing, yes! But here we get into the ritualistic side of it, and also I found out by talking to him, for example, what would prevent him from coming into the Royal Opera – I would always demand he would put on some smart clothes. I was shocked by this. He wants to hear the music but feels there is something alienating and hostile about the audience, and you know, he feels he can’t really wear normal clothes. And that’s something we have to fight. It really was shocking for me to hear that.

I find the correlation between dressing up and elitism bizarre; I dress up because I enjoy it, but I haven’t done it every single time I’ve attended an event.

I dress up as well – because I’m Russian, we tend to dress up, it’s normal to go out of the house to the bakery dressed up, so it’s a different attitude. There’s a big long explanation for it, I am sure – Russia never had a hippie culture, for example – so the idea of casual clothing is, for us, still a bit alien. For my son, who is 18 right now, he doesn’t want to make that effort, and also I think, if I meet someone who knows me and say, “This is my son” – he hates that, so that’s another reason he won’t hear a Wagner opera. But I said to him, “You can wear what you like and be completely separate from me” – and that was the pact.

So did he go?

He‘s seen the whole Ring cycle, and he knows it’s amazing – he could feel the fire in Walküre because he was in the 2nd row! He said, “I could feel the heat… !” Really, he loved it.

If you can get young audiences exposed like that even once, they’ll get it.

Some of them will come back, I think… some. But we need this kind of thing, of just going at all; we used to have this sort of cultural exposure in Soviet Russia. We used to have concerts for children, and for teenagers, and you had to go to them with your school – you had to go to a symphony concert, it was not a choice. And for 80% it meant nothing, but there would be that 20% who’d get completely hooked.

So your series feels like the next logical step for people who are curious, young or not…

I think that’s probably why I can do this so easily with Peter – he thinks the same; he’s very open, he can talk to anyone about these things without trying to create a mystique about any of it. I mean obviously there is a sense at some point where we say, “The rest we can’t explain because it’s magic, it takes you over” – but there are lots of things you can explain in an ordinary way, with very simple language, and that’s what we try to do.

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Vladimir Jurowski: “What Would Good Old Strauss Have Said To All This?”

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor, Jurowski, Russian, maestro, Music Director, Bayerische Staatsoper, lead, music, classical, artist, musician

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Owing to the realities of the coronavirus, the days of crowded orchestra pits may be some ways off to being fully realized, but restrictions have created large opportunities for the small. Reorchestrations are not new, of course; history is filled with examples of composers reorchestrating their own work and that of others. Mahler, Mozart, Stravinsky, Strauss, and Schoenberg all reworked (or, in fashionable parlance, “reimagined”) their own compositions and the works of other composers, contemporary and not, as need (social, financial; sometimes both) dictated and creative curiosity allowed. Such reworkings reshape one’s listening, in small and large ways, and shake up the foundations of perception (conscious and not) which come to be associated with particular sound worlds.

Conductor/director Eberhard Kloke’s reorchestration of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper, a new production helmed by Barrie Kosky and led by Music Director Designate Vladimir Jurowski, was one such pandemic-era production providing this shake-up. The opera, and its composer, are deeply intertwined with Munich and its cultural history, with many opera-goers holding specific memories of related work by conductor Carlos Kleiber and director Otto Schenk. Appreciating a new version of something old means prying off the determined octopus which has wrapped itself around the object of musical worship; usually the tentacles spell out things like “comfort”, “nostalgia”, even “expectation” and “ego.” Analyzing the whys and wherefores of one’s listening habits, as such, is not always pleasant, but is necessary. Along with being the incoming Music Director at Bayerische Staatsoper (2021-2022), Jurowski is Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB). As I observed in 2018, the Russian maestro is well-read and very articulate; just as he spoke at length about Mussorgsky, programming, and stagings back then, so he now speaks about the act of reorchestration and its historical and creative antecedents – what works, why, and how; to quote the Marschallin, “in dem “Wie” da liegt der ganze Untershied” (“the how makes all the difference.”).

Thus has curiosity and anticipation for the new staging grown since the opera’s livestream presentation on March 21st. Despite having studied Kloke’s reduction of Strauss’s score (published at Scott Music), the experience of hearing it was, and remains, deeply poignant, even rendered through home speakers; if reduction and translation are analogous, then so too must be the act of reading to one’s self versus the full sensory experience of hearing the words aloud in all their syllabic, rhythmical glory. Frissons of shock and sincere wonder raced through veins in experiencing the online presentation, with Strauss’s grand cotillion on dewy grass becoming a deliciously barefoot belly-dance across an ornately-patterned rug. Taste is personal, but so are hang-ups; the awareness is all. The “how” indeed makes all the difference.

Our conversation took place in early 2021 in relation to a magazine feature I was writing at the time (for Opera Canada) about opera reductions in the age of pandemic; that feature also had insights from tenor John Daszak and Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus. For the interests of education, possible inspiration, and clarity into the wide world of reorchestration, I was granted permission  to publish this exchange with Maestro Jurowski, in full. Make a pot of tea, sip, and enjoy.

You’ve done a few reductions, haven’t you?

Officially I did one which was aired on Deutschlandfunk Kultur (radio) – I did it during the first lockdown (spring 2020). It was a longtime dream of mine to do a version of a piece which I’ve loved for years and which for some strange reason never become really popular, although other works by the same composer have made it into all possible charts – I’m speaking of Prokofiev here, and the piece which I have created of is The Ugly Duckling, the fairytale after Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a piece Prokofiev rewrote several times himself; he wrote the first version of it in 1914 for voice and piano, and then he came back a few years later and did a version still for voice and piano but a different voice, a higher voice, so he started by amending the vocal lines and ended up amending the whole structure. He moved the keys, not all but some, so it became singable for a soprano; I think it had to do with the fact that his first wife, Lina Prokofieva, was a soprano, and he reworked it for her. Then he came back again much later, about 20 years after the piece was finished (in 1932) and created an orchestral version. I always found it fascinating composers creating orchestral versions of their own piano pieces. In the case of Prokofiev there are two famous examples, one is The Ugly Duckling, and the other one is his Fourth Piano Sonata (1917); the slow movement of this sonata, the Andante, he later made into a self-standing piece of orchestral music, the Andante Op. 29 (1943), and that is a firework of compositional craft, comparable with the best orchestrations of Ravel, who was orchestrating music by other people too, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition; in the same vein, Rachmaninoff did a very interesting arrangement of his Vocalise, originally written for voice and piano, which he later reworked into an orchestral piece, first with solo soprano, and then a version where all first violins of the Philadelphia Orchestra would play the tune and a small orchestra would accompany.

So Prokofiev wrote The Ugly Duckling having a certain type of voice in mind, and then he came back and orchestrated it, but in such a way that made it literally impossible for a light voice to perform, simply because the orchestration was too heavy; I wanted to bring the piece back to where it belonged, in the realm of chamber music. So I chose to do a version of it for 15 players, which is the normal size of a contemporary music ensemble; it all springs from Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony #1, which was scored for 15 players. I realized very soon that it was impossible to simply reduce the missing instruments; for that size of group you have to re-balance the score, and very often I found myself in need to address the original piano score. So, I was moving along the confines of Prokofiev’s orchestral score, but eventually what I wrote was much closer to the original piano score, and that made me realize again how huge is the gap between what composers set for piano, two-hand piano, and the same music being reimagined for large orchestra – it becomes a different piece. It’s a different weight, there’s a different sound world, there are different colors in it, and obviously it produces different kinds of emotions in us listeners. If you take a Beethoven string quartet and simply double each voice, so play it with 40 people rather than with four, it won’t automatically be 40 times stronger – it will be louder, for sure, but not necessarily as balanced, because it’s like alchemy; you multiply the numbers, but different numbers in the same mathematical relationship calls for completely different sound effects.

What kind of effects?

For instance, one violin, obviously, is a solo instrument; if you have two violins playing the same tune, acoustically, it would create a clash. Even if they were playing ideally in tune, you would still hear two violins. Take three violins, and make them play the same tune again, and it will sound much more unified. At four, it will sound again heterogenic. Five is better than four, and three is better than two. At six you would still hear a small ensemble, and somewhere between seven and eight you will start hearing a section. When hearing a section playing a single note or a melodic line, it gives this melodic line or this note a completely different weight, and not necessarily a bigger weight, than when played by one person.

“Weight” is a good word within the context of what is lost or gained. How do you approach weight in orchestration when you are reducing a score?

You have to shift it; it’s like in tai chi, shifting the weight of your body from the centre to the left foot and then the right foot again, and so on. So you’ve got to decide exactly how many instruments you leave on the melodic voice and how many instruments you would leave with the harmony, how many instruments you’ll give to the bass…  it’s not always mathematically, I mean, obviously you could calculate everything, but not all of these calculations will be obvious. So for me the scores of Richard Strauss or Rimsky-Korsakov, to give you two very different examples, or late Wagner, are such examples of perfect calculation. When it comes to others, well, some don’t understand how to go about composing for the weight of a symphony or orchestra; they might treat the orchestra like a large piano, and that is, with permission, wrong. An orchestra is a different instrument – Bruckner treats the orchestra like a huge organ, and that’s sometimes very strange, it seems much less plausible than treating the orchestra like a piano, but it calls, interestingly, for better results.

But composers who write specifically for the stage, for singers: that is a whole different beast.

It is! And that is where the problems start. So Strauss was among the first composers who not only sanctioned reduction of his scores, because Wagner did too, Wagner sanctioned the reduction of several of his operas, most famously Tristan, but Strauss was among the very first composers who started doing the job of reduction himself. And that is where you can see the difference between an artisan, a very secure craftsman being at at work, and a real artist being at work, because Strauss’s own reductions of Salome and Elektra, and the few fragments from Die Frau Ohne Schatten which he reduced, they are masterpieces, and near-ideal examples, entirely didactic examples, of how one should go about reorchestration. Another example of such reorchestration in the sense of adding weight is Mahler. When Mahler revised his symphonies, especially such symphonies as #4 and #5, the amount of weight loss these scores have undergone in Mahler’s hands is mind-blowing – yet they never lost their essence.

So I think, essentially, it’s like this: the composer always knows best. They always know how his or her works should sound with different, let’s say, smaller, forces. But what you need to do as an arranger is to get into the mind of the composer and crack the DNA code of the piece. You basically need to put yourself in the state of composing the piece within you – not with your own mind, but the mind of the composer. Once you’ve done that, you’re able to do any type of technical operations with a piece without damaging its essence, because one thing is simply reducing a score, and another thing is reducing a score in such a way that it would still sound its very recognizable self in this new attire, in these new clothes. For instance, Schoenberg’s own reorchestration of Gurrelieder was originally scored for a huge orchestra, and he created his own reduction for a chamber orchestra; I think it is an ideal example of how a composer reinvents the same piece with much more discreet means and yet it appears to you in all its glory. And yet I’ve done, during the pandemic, several reduced versions of symphonic pieces of opera. While in Moscow (in November 2020) I did a concert with a reduced orchestration of Götterdämmerung. I didn’t do the complete piece but selected fragments and that was a well-recognized, you could say, classical reduction by Alfons Abbas (1854-1924), published by Schott, and obviously going back to the composer himself, and yet I have to say, having done it, I… never felt at ease with it, because I always felt the piece was being betrayed.

Why?

Because by the time Wagner came to composing Götterdämmerung, he really knew why he used such a huge monstrous orchestra. In the first pieces, in Rheingold or Walküre or even in parts of Siegfried you would argue, he was going for more sound, for more volume – by doubling, by adding up stuff – but by the time he came to composing Götterdämmerung and even more so in Parsifal, he had a perfect command of those full-voiced chords, distributed among the four voice groups, meaning each wind group had four players, and when you started redistributing them, between the groups – because obviously a normal orchestra would have only maximally three players per section – then you get into all sorts of trouble, and then I thought, it would have actually been better, more honest, and certainly more productive, reducing it further, from quadruple not to triple but to double, so you exactly half the size of the players – just as Kloke did in his reduction of Wozzeck – because (in) leaving three original instruments and adding one on top, there’s always this torturous moment of choosing the right instrument: what do you add to three flutes, an oboe? Do you add a clarinet? Do you add a muted trumpet? Whatever you add won’t sound right.

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Wozzeck at Bayerische Staatsoper, 2020 (L-R): Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (Margret), John Daszak (Tambourmajor), Anja Kampe (Marie). Photo © Wilfried Hösl

And so, I’m coming to the conclusion that orchestration and reorchestration is a very special art which resembles the art of poetry translation. We know poetry is untranslatable, and that there are very rare cases where you find a translation which is completely idiomatic; most of the time you just get the very dry account of the events of the poem’s plot, or you get one very neat rhyme, if the original poem was rhymed – which makes a new composition, which might be a very interesting work in its own right but has little to do with the original poem. It is the same with the art of reorchestration. It depends also on what your aim is as the orchestrator; is your aim really to give the piece a new birth in these new circumstances but still keep its essence? Or are you after some very bizarre effect of deconstruction? One needs to be careful when dealing with these orchestrations, and reorchestrations, in that one can, in trying to translate the composer’s thoughts, become a traitor of the composer.

How so?

Well Stravinsky used to say to the performers that any kind of interpretation is mostly an act of betrayal toward the original’s composition. That’s why Stravinsky demanded strict following of the original text and no personality of the performer. At the same time Stravinsky himself, when re-orchestrating his own works, redid them every time, but in such a way that they became new pieces. Look at the three versions of The Firebird, the 1910, 1919, and 1945 versions: there are three different versions, there are three different birds. It’s not the same bird in a new dress; it’s a different bird – a bird which sings the same song, but the song gets a completely different meaning. The same happened with Petrouchka (1911), the same happened with Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920); when they got revisited in later years – Stravinsky often did it for financial reasons because he wanted to renew his copyright and get maximum revenue from performance of the pieces – he couldn’t help updating them to the new stage of compositional career he was at, at the time.

How does this relate to current trend of reduction then?

Well, I’m of two minds on this whole issue of reorchestration, because on the one side I find it fascinating business and a fascinating time, because it gives us so many opportunities to revisit the pieces we all know, but… I find a slight problem in that mostly works are not being revisited by the composers themselves, but by people who are our contemporaries. We’re talking of composers who are long dead, so unless they are artists of an equal level… well, who could be on an equal level with Wagner, Strauss, or Mozart? It’s worth remembering, when you think that Luciano Berio created his version of Combattimento di Clorinda by Monteverdi in the 1960s – when Hans Werner Henze created his version of Ulysses (1985); when Strauss created his version of Idomeneo (1931); when Mozart created his version of the Messiah (1789) – those were genius composers dealing with works of their genius predecessors. Speaking of more recent events, Brett Dean reorchestrated Till Eulenspiegel by Strauss for nine performers (1996); even if I disagree with some decisions (in the reorchestration), I’m always finding such attempts much more plausible and worthy of being performed than some (recent) reductions which were done for practical reasons by people whose names become slightly more familiar to you now, because they’ve touched on the great, famous compositions.

Schmutzer, portrait, sketch, composer, Strauss, German, classical, music

By Tucker Collection – New York Public Library Archives, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16243459

Where does Kloke’s approach to Rosenkavalier fit into all this, then?

Kloke has created something unique, first as a conductor, then as a programmer, and eventually as a reinventor of these old great pieces. His role is comparable with the role of a modern opera director who is revisiting the old pieces and sometimes deconstructing them, but there is always a thought, there is always a good reason. You might disagree with his solutions and ideas, but they are always done with an artistic purpose; that isn’t always the case. And, now is the heyday of rearrangers, because we are all forced to either completely take leave of certain compositions for the time being, or to hear them in reduced formations. I personally have no problem in waiting for another four or five years until a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony becomes possible in its original Gestalt, to do it the way Mahler conceived it with a large orchestra, than in doing it now in one of these multiple available reduced forms. I’ve looked at all of them and the only symphony which I have done in reduced orchestration and I found absolutely plausible was #4, because it is in itself a piece of chamber music; there were moments where it was missing a big orchestra but they were a few.

And, I haven’t done it yet, but I would like to do Schoenberg’s orchestration of Das Lied (Von Der Erde), simply because Schoenberg knew Mahler, so it is the pupil revisiting the work of the great teacher – but no other symphonies. Likewise I would have absolutely no interest in performing a reduced version of The Rite Of Spring.

So this time has changed the way you program?

Yes… yes. My whole philosophy during the time of the pandemic was to keep as much as possible the names of the composers in that co-relationship in which they were programmed. For instance if I had, let’s just imagine the names of Mozart and Strauss on the program, then I would try and keep Mozart and Strauss, but a work by Mozart can be kept anyway without any amendments, you just reduce the amount of strings and you can still play it, but in the case of Richard Strauss, if the piece was the Alpine Symphony or Zarathustra, I would never even *begin* to think of performing a reduced Zarathustra or Alpine Symphony; I think it’s a complete waste of time.

Does that attitude, of keeping certain things in their original Gestalt, extend to opera as well?

Yes. For me The Ring is such a piece, as a tetralogy. There are certain pieces like Rheingold – I know there is a version by Jonathan Dove which the Deutsche Oper presented in the carpark last year, that he reworked all four for Birmingham Opera originally – but for me, having done this little bit of Götterdämmerung with my Russian orchestra (in late 2020), I felt I had to keep it because it was just an important symbol of hope to give to people: “You see we are still performing, we can still do it.” But artistically I remain deeply unsatisfied with the whole experience; it had nothing to do with the orchestra or the wonderful singer (soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva) who learned Brünnhilde for us, it was just not the sound of Wagner as I knew it and as I would expect it; all the beauty of Wagner’s wonder machine, this symphonic orchestra he invented, was gone. It was simply a very crafty piece of orchestration, but nothing else. There was no magic in it at all.

At the same time, I found when we had to go back to smaller sizes – the string orchestra in performances of let’s say early Beethoven symphonies or something like Symphony Classique by Prokofiev – the pieces gained from it, hugely, so there was a loss but there was also a gain, and the gain was in clarity and virtuosity, in transparency and all that. The question is, do you want more transparency in pieces like… Tristan?

I was just going to mention that precise opera… 

I mean, is that what you want? For transparency?

.. yes, in direct relation to transparency. You took the words out of my mouth there.

Right?? So, yes – I would choose my pieces very carefully these days. Specifically in relation to what I’m preparing now, Der Rosenkavalier has this neo-classical aspect which got later developed by Strauss and Hofmannsthal and found its most perfect resolution in Ariadne auf Naxos, especially the second version with the prologue, composed in 1916. Revisiting Rosenkavalier from the backward-looking perspective of Ariadne I find very interesting. I am not saying that this is an absolute revelation and this is how I want to hear my Rosenkavalier from now on – I would be lying! I want to go back to Rosenkavalier as we knew it before! – but I bet you there will be discoveries through this smaller version which will help us when working on the piece again in the larger orchestration, to work on the finesse and bring out the theatricality of the libretto.

Actually the main difference between the small version and the big version is, the big version, however transparent you do it, you still first hear the orchestra and then the voices; with the smaller version you can almost perform it as a play, with background music. And I am sure Hofmannsthal would have been thrilled because he thought of the piece as mainly his composition, with music by Strauss; we tend to think of it as a great opera by Strauss with text by Hofmannsthal. So there are two ways of looking at it.

But Wagner… ?

Well, when it comes to something like Parsifal or Tristan or Götterdämmerung, I think the pieces are perfect the way they were conceived, so I personally, with all due respect to the people who reworked these operas now for smaller forces and those people who perform them… I personally don’t think it’s the right thing to do; I would keep my fingers away from it. As I would keep my fingers away from Shostakovich Symphonies, apart from #14 which was composed for chamber orchestra, and I would wait as long as is necessary until performing them again. I would not touch on any Prokofiev symphonies or big Stravinsky ballets or Mahler, Bruckner, symphonies, what you will; I simply think there is a limit beyond which the reduction changes the pieces beyond the level of recognizability – and then I much prefer to sit in my armchair and look at the score and imagine how the piece would sound, or listen to a good old recording. I mean, it’s everybody’s right to decide what’s best for them, and there is no right and wrong here. Besides it’s always better to have some music in whatever form than no music at all, but my feeling is also there’s been so much music composed over the last 2000 years, well, even take the last 500 years or so, you could fill hundreds of lifetimes with programs, never repeating the same pieces; why do we always have to come back to the same pieces over and over again?

Because they’re crowd pleasers, they sell tickets, they put bums in seats…

Yes, and because they give us this sense of safety, because we come back to something familiar, we can cling on to that, etc etc, again, anybody has the right to do what they think is best for them, but I had absolutely no hesitation in cancelling all these big pieces and replacing them with other pieces by the same composers or in the case of Mahler, there is actually nothing which can replace Mahler 9, nothing at all, so I would say, if we can’t play Mahler 9 now, we play a different piece by a different composer, we just leave it at that; there are some things which are irreplaceable.

Jurowski, Kosky, rehearsal, probe, Munich, Bayerische Staatsoper, Der Rosenkavalier, opera, classical, music

Director Barrie Kosky (L) and conductor Vladimir Jurowski (R) rehearsing Der Rosenkavalier in Munich, 2021. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Perhaps this era will inspire audiences not to perceive reductions as a poor compromise but as a new way of appreciating an old favorite.

Yes, and you know, I’m always asking myself – again, this is me being a grandson of a composer – I’m always asking, “What would good old Richard Strauss have said to all this?” Because knowing Strauss and his ways from the many letters and diaries he left, and the bon mots he pronounced in conversations with other people, I think he would have still preferred hearing his work in a strongly reduced version, than not hearing it at all. So I think when it comes to Strauss, he of all people would have been actually rather happy hearing his Rosenkavalier even if what we are going to present in Munich will be very, very far removed from the sound world of the Rosenkavalier he thought of when he composed it. In his time as President of the Reichsmusikkammer, the Ministry of Music in Nazi Germany – a position he held until he fell out with Goebbels – Strauss insisted on ruling out the possibility of performances of some operas by Wagner by smaller theatres because he thought performing these works with orchestras less than such-and-such-number of strings were an offense to the composer, so he was quite… in that time he was quite radical with his views. Because people then were much less purist than they are now, they just wanted to hear their Lohengrin, and they’d gladly hear it with six first violins. Just as recently, in Munich before everything closed down completely (in late 2020), (Bayerische Staatsorchester) was playing in front of 50 people, when (just prior) they were playing in front of 500 – they were playing Tosca with six first violins, and Swan Lake with six first violins, and you know, that was the only possibility. That’s why, when I came to Wozzeck, I thought, “This is a good one; this piece was sort of the cradle of modernism, and we will find a good version of the piece, reinvented” – and we did find that version, in Kloke. There is an even more drastically-reduced version for 21 musicians…

The reduction by John Rea?

Yes! I was prepared to play it as well! I said, “If the restrictions will go that far, then we’ll play this version for 21 musicians.” It was almost an act of defiance back then, but now, when these things become normality, when we see that the next few months, maybe the next six months, maybe the next year, will be all reductions, I think one needs to choose carefully.

For instance, I completely reprogrammed the season in Berlin; I remember when we published the program of the RSB in, it was right at the beginning of the lockdown March-April last year, there were some journalists in Berlin who said, we were lunatics, we were completely out of touch with reality that we were presenting this program which was completely impossible, and I said then, “I’d rather present something which is impossible but which represents my dream, a certain way of thinking about the music, and then I will bring it in cohesion with reality.” I’d rather do that, than simply leaving all the dreams behind, and presenting some completely randomly-made program simply because we know, “Oh there is a pandemic coming and we can’t play this and that.” I’d rather say, “This is what we thought of; this is what I would have ideally liked to have played. And now we see we can’t, we still try and weave our program along the pre-made lines of this concept.” So we had all the Stravinsky Russian ballets and many other works, and of course none of them will happen now, it’s clear, but I would still have a Stravinsky festival in Berlin, and we will already start, we have already had a few pieces by Stravinsky and we will keep that line, the same will apply to Schnittke or Denisov or almost any composer, the only ones we left out completely without replacing them were the really big ones such as Mahler 9 or Shostakovich 8, there is no replacement for them.

But I’m quite hopefully because you know if you see how composers themselves developed – take Stravinsky for instance, he started composing for these monstrous-sized orchestras and eventually lost interest in them, later in his life the more chamber musical or unusual he got the combinations of instruments got more and more unusual and the compositions didn’t lose any of their qualities, they simply became something else. So if we take composers’ development as our guide, then we certainly won’t get completely off-road.

Marlis Petersen, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance, Marschallin

Marlis Petersen as the Marschallin in Barrie Kosky’s staging of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

But how much will stagings match that whilst complement the overall spirit of the current era?

Well our Rosenkavalier will also be different to the one originally envisioned by Barrie Kosky; it will be a corona-conforming production. And I’m sure when we come back to revisiting it in the post-corona times, obviously, as every new production will be revived hopefully multiple times, we’ll change it once more. But again, I’m thinking of Mahler, who would change the orchestration of his symphonies every time he would conduct them in a different hall with a different orchestra – it was never the same process. It was Mahler who said, “Hail the conductor who will have the courage to change my pieces further after my death.”

… which, in my mind, underlines the flexibility of audiences’ listening then; it’s interesting how  auditory intransigence – ie, “x opera has to sound exactly like this, the end” – doesn’t match composers’ visions…

… because for the composers their pieces were part of a living process, a *live* process of genesis, it was part of their life and they were still alive and as they were alive they were changing things along the way…

… but that’s music.

That is music! Mozart would compose extra arias for his operas and take some arias out in the next edition and he would also have very different orchestra sizes depending on the places where he would perform them. Our problem is that we have this… this is a completely different subject matter and it would take a whole separate conversion… but, we got fixated. It’s like an obsession with the music of the famous dead composers. So that we found ourselves in this museum where everywhere there is in a line saying “Don’t touch this; don’t come close!”

It’s not a separate conversation though, it’s part of the reason some organizations have closed  instead of trying to find ways to perform. They assume audiences will be afraid of that different sound.

I agree with you, absolutely. But it’s a different thing when we are scared of reductions: we might injure the essence of the composer’s work or we might simply injure our little feelings provoked by certain compositions, so basically we’re not interested most of the time – we’re not interested in the music; we’re interested in the emotions this music provokes in us, and we want to have a push-button repetition of the same emotions over and over again.

“I want to feel THIS during Aida; THAT during Rosenkavalier… ”

Precisely.

… but I think this is an opportunity for examining those preconceptions, and asking asking what our vision of “normal” even means now.

What does “the normal” mean in the post corona times, yes – because anything will feel completely abnormal, everything will feel huge and new and very exciting, and playing Beethoven’s 9th again or Mahler 5 will feel like a real revelation. People will get heart attacks, hopefully positive heart attacks, from being in touch with this music again – certainly us musicians will.

Some of us audience members are also musicians.

So you can get a heart attack, then – hopefully in a good way.

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Der Rosenkavalier in Munich: “We Can Be Alive And Find Ourselves in These Roles”

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Nationaltheater, Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Anticipation, excitement, and anxiety tend to be usual feelings in relation to new productions, for artists and audiences alike. When the opera being staged is a favored work, those feelings become distinctly pronounced, and call into question the whole nature of fascination with the piece, the composer, the librettist, and the art form overall. As a pseudo-knowledgeable, ever-studying, non-singing, over-wordsy, wide-eared opera person, you may become conscious of your love, others’ love, your expectations, others’ expectations, your preconceptions, others’ preconceptions, your reactions, others’ reactions – and you may find yourself exhausted by the conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious levels of identification, non-identification, meditations, musings, and various analyses you perform, repeatedly, over the course of weeks, months, years. You may hear bits of arias and orchestration at unexpected moments, and tap your foot or teeth or waggle eyebrows or fingertips along, an internalized melodo-sensual-rhythmical complement at all hours of the day or night: in the bath, out on the street; looking out the window at a white dog, looking up in wonder at a purple-pink orchid; frowning in a mirror, forking in cold spaghetti, falling asleep in front of the telly. You may wonder and worry about those new costumes and sets and what form of fancy choreography might complement some favored passages, to say nothing of all the secret, conversational places between. You also ponder why any of this should actually matter amidst a year-long worldwide pandemic. Yet it does, and very much; art takes on new and precious significance amidst pandemic, more so when there is the willpower to see it realized in a live form. Anticipation, excitement, anxiety; soap, rinse, repeat.

And so it is with a new production of Der Rosenkavalier set to make its debut in Munich this coming Sunday. Premiered in 1911 in Dresden, the opera is associated with a distinctly Rococo visual, helped along by celebrated recordings and fusty album covers as well as the famous Otto Schenk production, first presented in 1972 and led by Carlos Kleiber. The wigs, the dresses, the buttons, the buckle shoes – the glitter, the gilding, the glamour: these are the elements co-related (however consciously or not) with Der Rosenkavalier. There was more than a hint of public mournfulness when the Schenk production was retired in 2018. New visions of old favorites tend to create waves, sometimes (/ often) brushing against the sandcastles of expectation lining the shores of creative consciousness. It’s difficult to gauge how any new production will be ultimately received,  but in an environment so heavily re-shaped by pandemic, it’s little wonder that a new staging will court reaction, for after all, certainties within the artistic sphere are nice (or perceived to be so) in an age where there is naught but uncertainty everywhere else. “Give me my buckle shoes,” goes the thinking, “they hurt to walk in but they’re comforting nonetheless.” Such clinging can, of course, lead to needless suffering; bunions are not marks of virtue, after all. Sometimes a good dose of curiosity is the best (and only) thing to provide a proper shoehorn. Yes, it’s frightening to stay open at a point in history when it feels so dangerous on all fronts – but in the current cultural climate, that openness seems more vital than ever.

Certainly good leadership can help to encourage the needed spirit. The determination of the Munich team behind the new Der Rosenkavalier, together with actionable choices which manifest such determination, have provided much inspiration and hope. Directed by Barrie Kosky, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, and designed by Rufus Didwiszus, the new production was birthed in an environment characterized by rules and restrictions which would have seemed like a form of creative straitjacket only 14 months ago; now that straightjacket is a parachute, the very thing which allows for any sort of a view. Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote, in Buch der Freunde (Book of Friends), his 1922 collection of aphorisms, itself a kind of postmodern conversation with artists of the past (the title is lifted from Goethe’s own West-östlicher Divan), “(t)here is more freedom within the narrowest limits, within the most specialized task, than in the limitless vacuum which the modern mind imagines to be the playground for it.” (trans. Tania and James Stern; The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Princeton University Press, 2008) Like every event currently unfolding (or planned) at various houses operating at various levels in Europe, this Rosenkavalier conforms to current Bavarian health regulations, ones which (as you’ll read) entail a strict system of interaction for artists.

Samantha Hankey, mezzo, Marlis Petersen, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance, jump, joy, Marschallin, Octavian

Marlis Petersen (L) as the Marschallin and Samantha Hankey as Octavian in a scene from Barrie Kosky’s staging of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Such a conformation also means that Strauss’s original, immense score isn’t going to be presented (at least this time), but a reduced version of it, by conductor/re-orchestrator Eberhard Kloke, will; with its dramaturgical approach, Kloke’s reorchestration utilizes the sound palette of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (which premiered the year after Rosenkavalier, in 1912) and, notably, makes no deletions to the original, as has been the case with past presentations and recordings. Hofmannsthal’s libretto, filled with a delicious syllabism, mixes intimate poetry and epic theatricality (including broad farce) within a dialectical framework involving the Marschallin, her young lover Octavian, her obnoxious cousin Baron Ochs, his intended bride, Sophie (who falls for Octavian, and vice-versa), her status-obsessed father Faninal, and, I would argue, the immense if unseen character of the work, the Marschallin’s husband. The opera’s final scene features one of the most famous trios in all of opera, but each part could (does) stand as its own form of soliloquy, a moment whereby Octavian, Sophie, and the Marschallin are enacting a hoary old romantic cliché (the love triangle) whilst forming something new, as, from word to word and note to note, they individually express and refine their sense(s) of freedom, circumstance, choice, and actual, felt consequence. “Es sind die mehreren Dinge auf der Welt, so dass sie ein’s nicht glauben tät’, wenn man sie möcht’ erzählen hör’n. Alleinig wer’s erlebt, der glaubt daran und weiss nicht wie,” sighs the Marschallin. (“There are so many things in the world that one would not believe them if one heard them told. Only those who experience them believe in them, and do not know how.”)  Every time I hear this, no matter the recording, I want to run across a dark beach barefoot, leaving wig, corset, and buckle shoes behind, kicking the sandcastles as I go.

Sunday’s presentation in Munich is new in not only the approach to staging but in its casting, with many here making important role debuts. Marlis Petersen, celebrated for her interpretations of Lulu and Salome, debuts as the Marschallin; mezzo soprano Samantha Hankey sings Octavian, the “cavalier” of the title, while soprano Katharina Konradi is Sophie, the recipient of the cavalier’s “Rose.” It was a true a privilege to speak with the latter two singers the day after their first general rehearsal, with the artists carrying an ebullient energy from the experience, their first in front of an audience (however limited) after a long period of deprivation. Both artists have extensive experience across celebrated opera stages, and with singing the music of Strauss. Soprano Konradi is currently a BBC New Generation Artist (2018-2021), and has made numerous recordings for BBC Radio 3. From 2015 to 2018 she was a member of the ensemble of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, and joined the ensemble of Staatsoper Hamburg at the start of the 2018-2019 season, during which time she also performed as Zdenka (in Strauss’s Arabella) at the Semperoper in Dresden. She has enjoyed concert engagements with Orchestre de Paris, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, to name a few, and worked with a range of conductors including Daniel Harding, Manfred Honeck, Kent Nagano, and Paavo Järvi. Along with performances at Wigmore Hall last year, Konradi has a new CD of lieder out now, Liebende (or Lovers, Avi Music), featuring the music of Strauss, Mozart, and Schubert. This summer, restrictions allowing, she’ll be performing in Tobias Kratzer’s staging of Tannhäuser. Mezzo soprano Hankey is a member of the ensemble of Bayerische Staatsoper, where she made her role and house debut as Hänsel in Hänsel and Gretel in late 2019. A former member of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program, she has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Opernhaus Zürich, Den Norske Opera, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Birgit Nilsson Prize (part of Operalia) for her interpretation of the music of Strauss. She’s worked with numerous conductors, Philippe Jordan, Gianandrea Noseda, Nicola Luisotti, and Carlo Rizzi among them, and this summer performs in Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging of Das Rheingold as part of the Münchner Opernfestspiele, the annual summer festival via Bayerische Staatsoper. The event, as with Bayreuth, and so many cultural events, depends entirely on which restrictions may (or may not) be in place as the result of coronavirus infection rates.

Der Rosenkavalier streams live from Munich on Sunday, March 21st, at 3.30pm CET.

Katharina Konradi, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, bed, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance

Katharina Konradi (foreground) in a scene from Barrie Kosky’s staging of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Does everyone working at the Staatsoper receive regular testing?

SH Yes, the opera has a whole bunch of safety procedures in place in addition to regular testing and mask-wearing; everyone in the house is sectioned off into groups. Performers are at a specific level of risk, the red group it’s called; your group determines the level of interaction you are allowed to have with other people.

Samantha’s recent Bayerische Staatsoper Instagram takeover showed a bit of this testing process but also featured Katharina on her trampoline at intermission.

KK Oh, I take it everywhere! Whenever I have performances, concerts, projects like this, I make a recording, whatever, I take it with me, and I relax before performing with it. I don’t know how to quite express it, but my body is like waves, so I’m so happy to have it.

It’s a good way to keep your energy up – literally.

KK Yes it is! It’s fun to do before a performance.

SH You also have a balancing circle, what’s it called?

KK Ah yes, a balance board…

SH I always want to come into your room for it, it moves in all these different ways – very cool!

Working in the current environment must be quite different from what you are used to.

SH We haven’t performed in so long. I think Barrie saw we’re young, fit people and we like to move, and so…

KK I think the big difference is that we don’t have an audience. Yesterday we had a general rehearsal and we had fifty or sixty people watch, and it was completely another scene, because you know there are people sitting there, and you can send the energy to them and you also take a small part of this energy to you on the stage. It was a great experience after this long time without an audience.

SH Hearing applause at the end was so unexpected, we were like, “Wow, this is … incredible, this is people’s way of saying “Thank you for doing this.” It was very emotional. I didn’t anticipate hearing applause.

I’m reading John Mauceri’s Maestros And Their Music (Vintage, 2018) and one of the things he writes about is how audiences and artists are in partnership; how has that idea played into your experiences? 

SH In rehearsal there would be some laughs from the artistic personnel, and yesterday I was thinking, “Will (the audience) laugh here? Am I not hearing laughs because of the masks? Is this working? Are you enjoying this?” That’s the difference between having fifty to sixty people and having absolutely no one. I think of it as this double-sided coin, though, because you can also do so much without an audience – you feel safe to explore and play and make the most of it, even though it’s being streamed to the world. Digital isn’t a replacement for live performance but it’s the best option we have right now.

What’s it been like working on this with Barrie Kosky?

Katharina Konradi, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, artist, performer

Katharina Konradi (Photo Simon Pauly)

KK For me it was a surprise – Barrie gives us the ability to be free on the stage, and to find things, by ourselves. For me it was the first time for this kind of experience, I was like, “What should I do?” And he said, “You can do whatever you want and I will say if you are right in your character, in your body, and in what Sophie is like.” It was, for me, the first time the stage director doesn’t say something before to the effect of, “Sophie is like this and like that, and so you must be like this.” I felt really free to build my character. He just put in small corrections, like, “You can be younger and laugh and be excited” but it was not like a set frame, with no possibility to take my own experiences into this role. And that’s been fantastic. I think this cast is full of personality and full of people who are so different and we are not all alike, we all have imaginations. Barrie never dictated how we should be, so we are allowed to use that difference. Every time in rehearsal we are trying to find some new aspects to take into our characters. I don’t know how it was for Sam, because she’s on the stage all the time. Maybe it’s different again…

SH I think, like what Katharina said, it’s been completely liberating working with Barrie. We’re doing such major roles that have such incredible history; you know, so many great singers have done these roles, and they’ve been in these iconic productions that we’ve all seen…

… may I add here, it is Christa Ludwig’s birthday today…

Samantha Hankey, mezzo soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, artist, performer

Samantha Hankey (Photo © Famous)

SH Oh, what timing! So yes, there’s so much weight in terms of that whole history, and, I don’t want to say fear, but it’s a huge amount of responsibility in doing these roles, and seeing all the traditional productions you think, “Okay, they follow the exact Hofmannsthal style and directions” and “This singer did it *this* way” and “Well this is how it’s always been done” – and Barrie said, “We want to do something different here.” So that means we get to do our own versions of these characters. In a piece like Der Rosenkavalier there aren’t a lot of variations in terms of interpretations of the piece – there’s a set type of Sophie, there’s a set type of Octavian. And now I really feel we’re creating something new that still honors this libretto. It’s very real.

In that vein, you are singing a reduction of Strauss’s score by Eberhard Kloke right now; some have expressed doubts about the sound world of Strauss undergoing such a transformation…

SH … well we can either not have art during the pandemic or we can have music in a reduced form and stream it, or we can all stay home. What’s preferable?

KK In this orchestral form, you can hear different things – for instance, a piano playing through our conversation. It’s better to perform like this, than to stay at home.

… and this Kloke version seems like a theatre piece in its own right, with a dramaturgical approach, and the sound palette of Ariadne auf Naxos. What’s it like to sing in such an expansive space?

KK For me and for Sam, it’s the first time we perform these roles. I don’t have experience with a full orchestra in this piece, I know only a bit and I know recordings from the past, but I think it’s a great experience to start with this orchestration, this not-so-big sound… but now the sound *is* really big because the orchestra is not in the pit but on the regular level. It’s a special experience, to take this sound, in a reduced form right now – like a child, we start with the small and then grow, and the role will be growing also, and in the next year hopefully it will be with the full orchestra.

SH I think it’s a great warm-up for when we do it with a full orchestra in the pit. Right now in an empty house the orchestra, already with its 36 to 40 instruments, is huge, because they’re placed on the orchestra level, so maestro and the team have come with ways to deaden the sound a bit, especially under the woodwinds and brass section, but with no one in house to absorb that sound and with our very boomy set, the sound is crazy. The Staatsoper is meant for bodies, for people to be there to absorb that sound and for the orchestra to be in the pit. But it’s a good compromise and a good way for us to warm up to these Strauss roles.

This being your first time doing these roles, how have your perceptions of them changed through rehearsals?

SH These are real people – the fact we’ve taken them out of this traditional Rococo style and thrown so much life and color into the characters, I think, means they’re very relatable and, I don’t want to say modernized, but a lot of the stuffiness is just gone, at least for Octavian.

KK For me it’s also really been freeing. I tried to find my own character in the (depiction of) Sophie. So in the normal life I am not like a “lady” – I can also be like a child, so I took this part of life onto the stage. In the old recordings, everything is really formal – “you must be like this” and you have rules (for the character’s portrayal) – we threw it all over and we can do, actually, everything. So we can be alive and and find ourselves in these roles.

Samantha Hankey, mezzo, Marlis Petersen, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance, Marschallin, Octavian, Mariandel, gender, curiosity, Christof Fischesser, bass

(L-R) Marlis Petersen as the Marschallin, Christof Fischesser as Baron Ochs, and Samantha Hankey as Octavian/Mariandel in the new Bayerische Staatsoper production of Der Rosenkavalier. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

That points ups something said in the recent video interview, that even with a fantasy element present, the emotions are nonetheless authentic. How do you find that in a role like Octavian?

SH There’s so much curiosity in the character. For instance, you’ll see in our production we do a very different Mariandel than what anyone’s prepared for, I think, and it’s really so much fun. Octavian is so in control, and he is so not afraid; he’s young, and very curious. I take a lot of inspiration (in characterization) from what’s going on in the current world, in terms of him being slightly androgynous, perhaps gender curious – there’s so much room within these roles to explore what’s in the libretto.

Samantha, you’ve sung Cherubino (from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro), which is also a famous trouser role. Do you see a connection?

SH No, I have to say; I think Octavian is very different to Cherubino.

People think of Mozart as a massage for the voice; I’m curious how Strauss has been for your voices through this era.

SH I spent the entire pandemic doing work personally – for myself, and in preparing to sing Octavian. That’s really all I did. Sometimes I see these questions put out there online – “What would you have done differently if you could go back to March 2020?” I’d do the exact same thing; I really prepared physically to get in shape for the stamina I knew I’d need for this, and put my heart and soul into the role and toward knowing everything I could about the music. I don’t feel like vocally it hasn’t gone well. But I kept hoping we’d get to the point of rehearsing this and put it onstage, and we’ve been very lucky to do that.

KK It’s a strange thing, when people in this pandemic era don’t use their time to develop the voice, to try something, to practise. So I work every time through this period, and I can say the same thing as Sam: I feel really fit, and I worked for this role. And I’ve done this CD recording (Liebende); I tried to do as much as possible, because in normal times I didn’t have so much time for other projects. Now I can practise every day when I want, with calm, and I can take a lot of time with things. And Rosenkavalier, it’s like a cherry on top of the cake, to be able to do this, to present our ideas and our voices in this production.

SH Of course there are times when the inspiration hasn’t been there, it would go on and off. Some days you don’t feel like singing, sometimes because of a gig that got cancelled, but really, for me, it was holding on to hope we’d get to February 1st and start rehearsing. I said to everyone in the room that very first day, “I’m just happy we’re here today.” With all the lockdowns and restrictions, you never know, so every day has been a gift we can go to work. The whole process of working with Barrie and Vladimir and the entire cast has been really inspiring, and creatively very restorative in the sense of wanting to work on other projects once this wraps up.

I would imagine being around each other has also been very good; as arts people it’s important to have the energy of others in a sensual, not solely virtual, way, and to have the knowledge you’re doing something new as well.

SH To be together and to create something so beautiful as this production has been special. As Barrie has said, art needs to be a reflection of the times – he also said something like, “I don’t want my productions shown after ten years” so as an artist, getting to create something new, it takes so much of the pressure off, because we can be ourselves, and be entirely present. We just take it one day at a time. As an American working in Germany I feel really fortunate, but for the majority of the pandemic I felt I shouldn’t’ be going in the opera house at all, that I’m really not an essential worker, but through rehearsing this piece, I felt like, “This feels important, this feels like it has meaning.”

Samantha Hankey, mezzo, Katharina Konradi, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, Barrie Kosky, bed, Strauss, Hofmannsthal, stage, performance

Katharina Konradi (L) and Samantha Hankey (R) in a scene from Barrie Kosky’s staging of Der Rosenkavalier at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

I’d say you are an essential worker, at least to some of us. Lucas Debargue said recently how culture has suffered through the pandemic, but art and artists have (or will) become better.

SH I’d agree with that, but I also don’t think the arts were ever prepared for anything like this. You always think, “This is going to happen, it’s in the diary” and then for your whole world to be shattered… you don’t know if things are going to happen in the future at all. So again, I feel lucky working in Germany.

Helmut Deutsch and I discussed how perhaps the quality of listening has improved, how that’s a very valuable thing to have emerged from this era. 

KK For us, because of this situation… yes, but also, when just one listener is in the house, as a performer you’re so happy. In normal times, when the auditorium was full of people, it was just another normal performance for us, but now, with just one person, you are *so* happy to see him or her, and you have another sense entirely of what you are doing, and for whom you are doing it.

SH And audiences have been silenced as well.

Yes, but not all people have the quilt of culture woven into their lives in the same way…

SH That’s why opera becoming digital is important. Not everyone has the luxury, once this pandemic is over, to travel to see performances. I do think this time has provided a big step forward for the industry to get with the times and have more digital content.

KK I think there is another side of this digital thing. I’ve done a lot of concerts in this pandemic time, and every concert, or almost every one, was recorded, and sometimes you don’t feel like, “I’m a singer of the world” and sometimes you also don’t do a very great performance, and in this time all the performances are recorded, so it’s like, “Okay, I must concentrate / I must be here and now / I must do it perfectly”…

How much do you think that expectation of perfection and the related pressure highlights the nature of digital then?

SH It is a bit stressful going into the livestream knowing that there will be imperfections, because art is imperfect…

KK I will say, I am a bit nervous about the presentation of the rose scene and how it will be filmed…

SH Oh, I don’t think they’ll do an extreme close-up then… and really, you sing it so beautifully, Katharina. I do think the atmosphere we create in the theatre might not transfer to the filming; the sound we make in the theatre might not be beautiful in recorded form, even though it was or is good in the house it’s designed for. But again, I still think it’s a better alternative than nothing. And I think listeners also understand that and can try and see past it. That’s my hope.

Katharina Konradi, soprano, sing, voice, vocal, opera, artist, performer, trampoline, jump, energy

Photo: Katharina Konradi

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Essay: Absence, Presence, & Teaching Amidst Pandemic

The idea of vision over visibility is a good one in theory but is challenging in practise, as many in the classical world are realizing. Not having pushback from a team of colleagues and peers has meant longer wait times for the vaccine of varied perspectives. The recordings of Schnittke, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich (my COVID trio, I call them), together with the online lectures and live streams only go so far in providing alternatives. Maybe it is as P. D. Ouspensky suggested in In Search of the Miraculous (Mariner Books, 2001), that “there are a great many chemical processes that can take place only in the absence of light.” Perhaps there is value in sitting in the dark, but can be so painful, so lonely. We (I use the royal classical “we” here) are pondering our role(s) within the greater social milieu of life, loss, survival, and resilience, even as we try to survive and keep visible to someone, anyone. The notions of presence and absence are stark amidst the current socio-cultural atmosphere; more than one observer noted, for instance, the lack of classical artistry at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. At a time filled with calls for social justice (notably via the Black Lives Matter movement) and greater opportunity, what can we, as a classical community, actually do? Just who and what we are serving?

Even as there is removal, there is renewal, and that, surely, must be some form of grace. Barbara Hannigan was one of the many people I interviewed in autumn 2020, as a recipient of a 2020 Opera Canada Award., We spoke shortly after the launch of Momentum, an initiative pairing established figures in the classical world with young artists; the need for such a project is, of course, greater than ever. Hannigan decided to launch the project because as she explained, much as young artists were grateful for the guidance provided via her other initiative (Equilibrium) early on in the pandemic, what they really wanted were live opportunities to practise their craft. She said something during our nearly hour-long exchange which I find hauntingly profound:

My desire in life is to be of service, and I found the best way I could be of service is through music. I would be perfectly happy if I was really good at teaching, or really good at preaching, or whatever the case might be – I would be happy to do those things as well. I just like being of service, and it just so happens that music is my medium, but at the core of it is vocation; I have to have that. I think that’s why I was so into contemporary music, it was, or is, a vocation for me. I knew when I started out that it needed someone to be its voice, someone to advocate for it, or for them – for the composers and modern music in general – and I knew that I had this gift for modern music, that I was smart with this kind of stuff, and I thought, “Okay, that’s my calling; I have to do that. I’m good at it and not many are good, and not many like it, but I like it… I really like it!” It wouldn’t be of service for me to go sing Traviata or Bohéme and to have developed my instrument to just do those things, or Queen Of The Night; there’s enough people doing that. So looking back, I understand how my path took the curves it took.

This autumn I began a position as Professor of first-year university students in a Media and Communications program; the end (or middle) of December brought a real sadness at bidding farewell to the many I felt I’d grown to know over the months, ones who emailed words of gratitude in the days that followed. I welcomed another group of students earlier this month when my seventh consecutive year teaching radio documentaries began. Though the overall tenor of this group is very different (final-term radio students tend to be boisterous than their first-term writer-colleagues), both experiences have called to mind Hannigan’s idea of service in this, the annus horribilis, and it might be said, the annus digitalis. Faces on screens, or not even that but disembodied voices, are now a norm, not an exception. My experience teaching piano, which I did for close to a decade, was carried out one-on-one, during a far more analogue era that necessitated physical presence for actual instruction. The experiential performance is missing, and one comes away feeling more alone than ever.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That idea – performance – is, or can be, a loaded concept. To say someone is being “theatrical” (or “performative”) is a form of insult in the English language, as if the theatre is a vehicle for deception, a heightened reality that is not real in and of itself. Yet the sort of performance inherent to (good) teaching, for instance, is authentic, because it is a true presentation of self which threads together entertainment as much as enlightenment into a unique (and hopefully inspiring) blanket. In a very good interview with The Atlantic, Teller, who is the silent half of the magician duo Penn & Teller and a former high school Latin teacher, tells writer Jessica Lahey that “no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds […] That’s what affects students.” True, though some of us educators are affected as well, especially adjuncts whose teaching pursuits are but one piece of a very broad and varied mosaic. Many classical artists teach, and many feel there is no chasm between self and subject matter; one simply is – what one not only teaches, but what one performs, listens to, sings, plays, reads… hears, sees, smells, touches, tastes; to borrow from Hamlet, the awareness is all.

In that same Atlantic feature, Teller echoes my (long-held) feeling that Shakespeare’s works should be seen before they’re read, echoing Tolstoy words in What is Art?, that “one cannot judge the works of Wagner without having seen them staged.” (More on Wagner in a future post.) This immediacy of the experience of art is a crucial step on the path to  service because it requires a real presence – but that presence has to be tempered in order to function at optimal capacity. Teller alludes to Francis Fergusson’s important 1949 work,  The Idea of a Theater: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective:

In the art that lasts, there’s always a balance: purpose that is action, passion that is feelings, and perception that is intellectual content. In Shakespeare, for example, there is always a level that is just action, showbiz. There is always a level that’s strongly passionate, and there’s always a level that’s got intellectual content.

Thus immediacy only happens through a balance of elements: passion and intellect, showbiz and high art, yin and yang, dark and light (rock and roll, though perhaps “roll and rock” is more appropriate; the “roll” part seems to have gone sadly missing of late). Such balance brings the most memorable and challenging (and sometimes important) art to life. Balance brings subject matter alive for students; Peter & The Wolf is followed by the music of Sigue Sigue Sputnik in my classes, and that’s precisely how it should be.

What is so frustrating, again, is the lack of live human engagement. I can’t see anyone, therefore this cannot be the performance I intended. This cannot have the effect I would wish it to have. I don’t know how much I am affecting you (or not). It’s hard to feel I am being of service right now. Why am I doing this, beyond the money, really? Humanity, for all its droplet-spewing imperfection, comes in many different shapes, forcing many different questions, prodding at our self-worth and asking us to up our game in the stakes of artistic endeavour. This COVID time has forced contemplations within the classical community which point at absence (absence of money, absence of opportunity, absence of others)  – but also a new, delicate presence composed of a heretofore unseen, unheard, unrealized capacity for creativity and curiosity. Aldous Huxley writes in The Divine Within that “(t)he Order of Things is such that no one has ever got anything for nothing. All progress has to be paid for.” Along with physical work, some of that payment involves (to paraphrase Ouspensky) sitting for lengthy periods in the absence of light, and allowing all those potent chemical processes to occur the way they need to. The past ten months have revealed, personally, a path littered with notions of worth and validation, strewn with perceptions of authority and power; a great many have been slotted in to the position my mother held up to her passing in 2015, of providing (or more frequently withholding) approval, validation, acceptance. It has only been through mandated isolation  that such a realization has come, that a clearer view of patterns, like Socrates’ shadows on the wall, have been seen. I’ve given myself permission to walk, carefully masked, outside at last.

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

Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, date unknown. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Perhaps this is where the classical community, need to go – outside. We can’t be of service if we stay inside, fretting on a return to “normal” that is months, possibly even years, away, or may never indeed return at all. Our listening has changed, our experience of music has changed; we have changed – I hope we have. Questions need asking, and require real work to cultivate, if not answer entirely: where have we failed? What can we do better? How can we be of service? COVID has taken (and continues to take) so very much; if there is something it gives us in return, let it be a new presence, forged, like a new and better Ring, in the fires of an old world that needed to be released. We are here to give a performance in which we must get our hands dirty. We must be awake. We must be aware.  Time to roll up our sleeves; the readiness is all.

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