Tag: politics Page 1 of 2

Boris Dralyuk, translator, Odesa, writera, poet, Ukraine, Russia, literary, LARB, LA Review Of Books, My Hollywood, editor

Boris Dralyuk: “You Have To Respond Emotionally To A Text, Not Just Intellectually”

Every day comes the email reminder: It’s time for your German lesson! Daily practice is key to learning a new language! During the worst of the pandemic lockdown I took formal lessons with a real, live teacher via Zoom; the experience was a useful and stimulating way to integrate education and interaction. Those months were indeed fruitful but pricey, and proved ultimately too dear for my limited budget, and so I am now left with basic, self-directed gadgets and services, and to my own analogue study, pursuits which demand other forms of payment (namely energy and attention) that I am not always able to give. It pangs me to consider the extent to which my language skills have slipped away, what with memories falling like raindrops lately – of winning fancy language prizes during elementary school days; of the praise garnered by my mother for pronunciation and swiftness of comprehension; of casually shrugging it away the way teenagers so often do when other interests enter and academic responsibilities loom. Playing linguistic catch-up (otherwise known as jumping in the deep end) as a middle-aged freelancer is daunting, exhausting, often disheartening, but passion for culture renders it necessary, and if I am being honest, uniquely rewarding.

And while knowledge of languages isn’t obligatory to opera appreciation, especially with the introduction of surtitles in 1983, such knowledge deepens the experience considerably. I always felt I was being left out of something, anything, everything, in not knowing opera’s prime languages (Italian-French-German) as well as I ought. That knowledge is slowly expanding, but so too, is my appreciation of the art of translation itself. Companies dedicated to presenting works in their geographically-specific local language (like the English National Opera, and once, if less so now, Komische Oper Berlin) would (do) rely on translations that aim to capture  the nuances of both text and its relationship to and with orchestration and scoring, and (in some cases) to the contexts in which the work was first created and presented (and/or contemporaneously produced). Many composers have actively participated in translations of their works and/or collaborated with their respective text-based counterparts; among opera’s most famous librettists/translators are Alfred Kalisch (1863-1933), Edward J. Dent (1876-1957), Andrew Porter (1928-2015), Amanda Holden (1948-2021; her work will be the subject of a future feature here), and the famous team of W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). Auden-Kallman wrote, along with collaborative translation on works by Mozart, Weill, and Dittersdorf, original libretti for living composers, including Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress, 1951) and Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961; The Bassarids, 1966). More recently, to take just one of many examples, English National Opera’s production of Die Walkure – or The Valkyrie – in autumn 2021 was presented in a singing translation by musician/scholar John Deathridge, whose own meant-for-reading translation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book points up a vital aspect of the industry that has faced new challenges in the digital era, most particularly with the rise of streaming services amidst pandemic.

Any opera lover will know, probably too well, that hitting “translate” on a video lacking formal subtitling invites a world of frustration; the result is mostly comical, and stems from a longstanding caption problem on Youtube. Even with the insertion of formal subtitled translations,the nuances of expression are often lost, drowned out in weird mishmash mixes of intended accuracy and grammatical gibberish. One can’t help but notice the many inadequacies in watching various introductions, talks, interviews, and previews released by opera houses, orchestras, and other classical-related organizations, when it comes to translation options; the varied socio-cultural / political / historical contexts are often binned in the name of (one supposes) expediency, digestibility, an ever-present pressure to get a post up quickly with the least amount of fuss and satisfying ever-shrinking arts budgets while hoping to garner the ever-desired sexy clicks. Is the arts world really so ready to throw something as important as translation to the side? Isn’t it a foundational part of attracting new audiences (and keeping old ones) to cultivate meaningful comprehension (and thus engagement)? At such moments the digital world seems woefully ill-equipped for the demands of translation, yet the internet would seem to be the very spot to offer more fulsome possibilities for the sort of nuanced appreciation that best serves the repertoire – thus arguably increasing its overall appeal. Someone, surely, must be able to build something(s) better, a system organizations at any level can access that goes beyond Google translate (or deepl.com) limitations – but then, someone, something, surely, must fund all of it, and aye, there’s the rub. But how much meaning is being lost in the meantime? How many potential audiences? How many potential ears, minds, hearts?

Of course there is no substitute for direct sensory experience when it comes to the marriage of music and words, but the key, as ever, is finding the time. One of my favourite if too-rarely enjoyed activities is spending a day (a week, a month) studying an opera libretto and related score, large pot of fresh tea at hand. Noting the rhythm of language, the shifting colours of sounds, the ways in which the dynamism of vowels and consonants shapes and informs musical lines and orchestration; pondering interactions, phrasings, silences; these are gifts to be enjoyed and explored, over and over. The act of reading a libretto (especially aloud) gives one a simultaneously broader and more intimate relationship with words, with sounds, with flow, intonations, and emphases, the way they all feel in the mouth, carry-float-sink-shoot in  or through the air – such a reading allows a greater comprehension of the world of words, of the work’s creators, and all those who’ve presented it since. Thus does the world become larger and more detailed, all at once. Deathridge did the world a great service indeed with his Ring book, but his efforts rile my writer’s heart for giving a sharp reminder of the fact that so few other opera-text ventures exist in the 21st century. There is clearly a long history of writer-composer relations – Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig worked with Richard Strauss, for example, and the texts of Friedrich Rückert and Clemens Brentano (among many others) were used by Gustav Mahler. English translations of these writers and others do indeed exist, though the output when it comes to their musical manifestations is spotty; those which are extant in scores, such as those which appear in the Dover editions of Mahler lieder, are far less than ideal (and don’t list translator names for the most part, pity). Indeed they may be intended for phonetic starting points, and as the bases of introductory study for musicians, but they are decidedly not a comprehensive whole. The ever-expanding Lieder.net is a good resource for song translations (and recognizes the translators, natch) even if it makes one long for a more comprehensive whole within the classical industry. Good English translations exist, but to reiterate, are spotty, not always easy to find, and are sometimes couched within more comprehensive volumes.

The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press, 2008), edited by poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy, contains a highly readable, immensely poetic translation of the first act of Die Rosenkavalier by dramatist Christopher Holme, done in 1963. Years before, in 1912, Strauss’s popular opera was its first full English translation by English critic and librettist Alfred Kalisch, who championed the composer’s work and translated other operas into English as well, Salome and Elektra among them. Kalisch himself noted in “The Tribulations of a Translator”, a 1915 presentation for the Royal Musical Association (published by Taylor & Francis; Source: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 1914-1915, 41st Sess. 1914-1915), pp. 145-161) the varied difficulties of translating opera, pinpointing the issue of whether it is the translator’s duty “to produce a readable translation or singable words.” This gets to the heart of the matter for current purposes, for while the latter is a topic for another day, the former – having something readable – is worth investigating, particularly in light of evolving technologies, audience engagement, cultural discussion, and to further perceptions around various forms of identity. Smart translations matter, and readable, easily accessible ones are a net good, in the world of literature as much as in the world of music and specifically classical culture. Most creators would, one assumes, like for their works to be understood in their full range of expression, for audiences of all locales and backgrounds to be given access to those intrinsic cultural nuances which are not always part of the concomitant scoring alone.

Thus it can be said that the act of translation demands respect for place, process, history, and humanism, qualities classical (as much the art form as its artists and ambassadors) aims to embrace and promulgate. In November 1959 writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) presented a lecture at the University of Texas in which he outlined, with fascinating precision, the ways in which the act of translation (as applied here to poetry) changes according to various contexts and received understandings. Using Sappho’s “Orchard” as his first example, Rexroth offers up eight different translations (including his own) to illustrate the vagaries and subtle ways in which language, and the societies from which understandings and experiences of the world springs, informs translation choices. He goes on to observe that translation “can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level.” Translation can do much more, as he notes:

It is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human life outside of one’s own. Making that leap requires imagination, but also compassion.

Thus I would posit that translation is (as I have written in the past) more than sympathy, but a true act of empathy, for translation engages the imagination just as empathy requires, and both require active, directed integrations of intellect and creativity to achieve meaningful effect. Someone who understands this integration thoroughly is poet and translator Boris Dralyuk. Born in Odesa and later relocating to America, Dralyuk is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the LA Review of Books, and is married to acclaimed fellow translator Jenny Croft. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature, though he also taught at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Awarded first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition, he went on, together with Russian-American poet/essayist Irina Mashinski, to win first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 Dralyuk received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly. His work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Review Of Books. His book Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 (Brill) was published in 2012; three years later, he co-edited, together with Mashinski and British poet/translator Robert Chandler, the immense Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), containing a wide swath of poets and writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Dralyuk also served as editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). His translation of Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press) by Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was published in 2018. Dralyuk has also translated the works of Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940), with Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). The writings of Babel, a fellow Odesa native, were described by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard in 2016 as “(f)ractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour […] they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will.” With bold strokes and wild energy, Babel vividly explores the lives of an assortment of colourful sorts drawn from real life, and Dralyuk’s own poetic attention to tone, colour, and pacing shine through the words, not to mention the meticulous, carefully considered rests between those words; rhythm, as it turns out, is just as important as exactitude. In addition to translating the work of Babel, Dralyuk has a close association with noted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (b. 1961), whose equally timely and often harrowing books The Bickford Fuse (Maclehose Press, 2016), and Grey Bees (Maclehose Press, 2020) have been translated to much acclaim, with Kurkov’s own recent fame in the West fuelling a rising awareness of the centrality of good translation and all the moving parts therein.

After much planning and re-planning, Dralyuk and I finally were able to chat – about translation as it applies to various corners of culture, about so-called identity politics, the choices he’s made as editor of the LA Review Of Books, his debut collection of poetry, My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books, 2022), and about the role technology can (should) play in advancing the awareness and appreciation of languages. We also discussed current notions around expression of cultural identity; related moral panics; the value (if any) of retaining romanticized notions in art and music and the related role of context in breaking apart habitual webs of intransigence. Just what does Dralyuk think of the current (and perhaps lasting) labelling of identities? Certainly such labels matter in translation? In an essay from March, The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross noted that “(a)cknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in fact, serve as a check on the oppressive allure of nationalist mythologies.” At a time when privilege, didacticism, and binary conclusions dominate large swaths of cultural discourse, examining the complex connections between familial (and social, economic, cultural) origins and creative output is vital, translators play a crucial role in helping to facilitate (and in some cases, promote) awareness and expansion of those connections, and of fostering curiosity, comprehension, and compassion to those identities.

And, a quick if vital note: I don’t speak or read the languages Dralyuk translates (yet), but I do strongly feel that his work, especially at this point in time, is of tremendous importance. Dralyuk possesses a musician’s approach to the elements, skillfully balancing, conjuring, and highlighting tone, colour, dynamism, texture, tempo, rhythm, silence, as pace and structure dictate. He understands the complexities of technique, the labyrinthe of contexts, the connections between head and heart, and he wants to let us, the reader, into that world. Emotion is, as you’ll read, a key part of what he does. Dralyuk is a maestro of translation, but he is also (and this was confirmed in our chat), humble, funny, kind, and involved. I remain grateful for his time and energy.

Note: The following interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022. 

Boris Dralyuk, translator, Odesa, writera, poet, Ukraine, Russia, literary, LARB, LA Review Of Books, My Hollywood, editorYou’ve translated authors whose works are now more widely known, and you’ve taken part in panels on Ukraine; do you think the attention on the country and its authors will lead to an overall greater curiosity and knowledge?

I think the attention is a good thing if it’s a lasting awareness.None of this is certain yet, whether this period of newfound fascination will outlive the conflict or whether it will even, frankly, be sustained throughout this war, which shows no sign of ending. I can only rely on my personal impressions and on the things I hear from my friends, but I think the worry is that social media and the news cycle bring up new scandals and new conflict and new conflagrations every day, and they have a lifespan of their own, and it would be wonderful if the people who are advocating for and spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture, if they’re able to leverage this attention that’s been drawn to the country – for the wrong reasons – for good.

Leverage the attention in a meaningful way that technology allows for?

That’s my hope.

Very often, I see – and I’m sure you do too – these updates and opinions go by, and I always wonder how it is that we don’t have a better technological framework that would accommodate the translations you and Jenny do.

I think Jenny is more of an optimist than I’ve tended to be. I’m pretty pessimistic myself, nowadays, but let’s put it this way: let’s say you have some degree of earned respect in the world, you’ve done a few things people like, and therefore you speak with some degree of authority. If that’s the case, what you put out there, regardless of the technological channels, will reach people. Social media is powerful in that regard; these things, even poems, if well-timed – and I don’t make a study of when to post or that kind of thing, though I know some do – but if well-timed in the general sense, if they hit on something people are thinking about, and you are one of the people to whom others tend to listen on these very subjects, the thing you’re putting out there will reach someone, a good number of people. Even if you reach two or three people when you could’ve reached five, you’ve still reached two to three people. I’m not really complaining about the channels available to us, I know there are people like yourself who actively work and think about new platforms and new ways to present the cultural items we care about most in a way that might gain traction.

These new ways of presenting culture tend to bump up against the perceived legitimacy of legacy brands, but the tools at hand, which everyone uses, make changing perceptions a challenge. Being independent means you gain certain things but lose others. 

I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t intervene too heavily in the things we publish at the LA Review of Books. I edit what we accept, if not myself, then others do, but it’s a broadly-based organization and always has been. The editing is not a reflection of my personal vision – I’m not Draconian, I don’t rule like a tyrant – but where I do rule like a tyrant is at my own blog or on my social media platforms, and I regard those as a rather pure form of expression. I have a very different sense of what a successful post on my own blog means to what a successful post on LARB means. Not infrequently a poem or translation published on my blog will reach more people than it might have at the LARB website itself – and that’s because people who believe that I do something well enough to listen to me go to the place where I do it; they’re not the readers of the LA Review of Books, necessarily – they’re the readers of my translations. And over time that number of people has grown, largely thanks to my use of WordPress and Twitter.

You are your own brand in that sense.

Yes, that’s right – because I’m not thinking of how to elevate my position there. I don’t get paid for my blog posts or the translations I post there. lf I really wanted prestige I’d try to get them into the major journals and would submit widely every 6 months, and face rejection letters and do it again and again – but that’s not what matters to me. I want those translations and those poems to reach the largest possible number of readers. And so they go on my blog.

And that’s to me a crucial point about the act of translation: you want to reach people. Reaching isn’t the same as engagement...

That’s very true…

… but through reaching people you can engage with what you translate in a new and important way. When I spoke with Elena Dubinets she said she found it hard to fathom how soldiers who’d read Dostoyevsky could engage in such horrendous acts of violence – which made me ponder the ways in which culture is received and perceived according to various factors.

I think if there is a net-positive outcome here, it is a change in how we perceive Russian culture. Some people do have a starry-eyed view of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I myself do not – but I don’t think it’s a crime to think that way. I do think it can become pernicious when we associate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and their art, with a kind of purity of soul, and a purity of vision, and then assume that anyone speaking Russian must surely possess those innate qualities. That’s not a good thing. We have to be realistic, difficult though it may be. We can’t always hold ourselves to this, but we have to be realistic when we make judgments about cultures and the bearers of those cultures, whatever the culture we come from. We may love the US but hate our neighbour because our neighbour has this to say, and our mother has that to say, and the guy down the street says something else – we’re all very different, yet there are things that tie us together. The same goes for people living in Russia and living in Ukraine. At some moments those common features become the most important things in our lives – as in moments of crisis, moments like these – but in general we are all different people and all have different capacities for insight and capacities for love and capacities for hatred. Russian culture, being such a powerful force in the world, has convinced many people, too many people, that Russians are a bunch of soulful Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Pushkins, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin were themselves complicated figures, not pure of soul at all times. I think this war can make us more realistic, bring greater nuance to our understanding of the people we read and admire, of the cultures in which we’re interested.

The “nuance” aspect largely goes against the algorithms that power the platforms we use…

Yes!

… but now especially, do you feel a particular weight or responsibility to not just present new things but old things with that same nuance? And how much do you see others carrying it forwards?

I think anyone working in Ukrainian and Russian right now feels a heightened sense of responsibility. I know I certainly was much more likely to do things before this war because I was interested in them without thinking about their effect in the world. I was kind of an “art for art’s sake” purist… I mean, I have ethics, but I’ve always been interested in presenting the most … challenging, the most delightful, the most complicated, the most unusual work, in translation, regardless of the life of the man or woman who wrote it, regardless of their political affinities. It’s basically been my sense that if the work is well made, it deserves to be read, and people can make up their own minds about how terrible the person was or how terrible the things expressed in it are. I still think that’s largely where I land, but I feel I now have to be more selective, not because anyone asked me. The people I translated tend to be people who are, I think, generally, somewhat responsible – not always. But I do think that it behooves us to be careful, now, in how we present work that may be interesting but perhaps can be too easily misread or misused at the same time.

books, Boris Dralyuk, prose, writing, poetry, Russia, Ukraine, literature, reading, library

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

I’m curious how you think this relates to the music world. It’s difficult to find good translations, even with companies dedicated to performing in English; there is this sense of “well just learn” whatever language – “just” carrying a number of unfair assumptions, not least access to resources.  So how to most effectively move past these attitudes? And how do we approach translating things like libretti, which, by their very nature, resist any form of translation?

I think the technology is very much the answer. Google has taught people that translation is no easy thing, and Google Translate, yes, people knock it, but there are two things about it worth considering: one, it’s getting better every day, because of the input – every time someone asks it to translate something, it learns – and the other thing is that it reminds people every day of the need for a human touch. I think ultimately it’s a great educational tool, not only for getting the bare thing across, so some people can move about their business day, but also, if you plug in Tolstoy whole, you’ll get rubbish that’s useless unless a human being gets involved. The technology leads people to realize how important translation is. Over the last ten years or so there’s been a greater appreciation of the work of translators and that appreciation has inspired many young people – I see this every day, more and more people are asking me about my career and how I got into this. So there’s more interest in learning and mastering and communicating across languages, and the number of younger translators is growing by leaps and bounds, and that speaks to a broader interest in foreign languages.

That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the quality of translation will improve, because what you need in order to be a great translator is the ability to read very closely and very carefully, and with a lot of emotion. You have to respond emotionally to a text, and not just intellectually. You also have to have deep intellectual understanding, but you need a real love for expression – a real love for the target language. You have to revel in it and relish it. You have to find the task of writing immensely rewarding, find a lot of joy in it. People who translate simply because they love the original and are just going through the motions of putting it into English will probably not come out with as pungent or flavourful a product as those who both love the original and love the target language.

That brings to mind a common line of thinking on English: “oh it’s so limited…”

I hate that…

Really?

I really do, I hate it when people say, “Oh, well, English is a poorer language, because it doesn’t have a-b-c” – no, every language lacks something, an a, b, or c, but it makes up for that in other ways, by what it brings to the table. So you have to be in awe of the possibilities of English when you embark upon a translation – that’s how you get the best text. You don’t get it by saying, “Oh no, I’m going to lose this and that because English can’t possibly do it” – yes it can! English can do anything you want it to! That’s the attitude you’ve got to take.

By the same way of thinking, how would one translate the works of writers like Joyce or E.E. Cummings into Russian?

People have – you do it by writing Ulysses, by being a genius at your work. Those translators did a good job. That’s how Alice In Wonderland was translated into Russian – you have to have the same level of imagination and sense of possibility as Lewis Carroll had.

I love the Irish sense of playing with the language of their British colonizers – it’s a big reason I fell in love with Irish literature years ago, and underlines what Rexroth says when he explores Sappho, and gives examples of how each culture translated the same poem differently…

The Irish thing is a good example of what Ukrainians have attempted to do with the Russian language, from Gogol on – a good parallel –Isaac Babel would count, by dint of two circumstances, as a colonial subject –he’s Jewish and he’s from Ukraine. He’s a good analogy for Joyce, for speakers of Irish extraction. That’s one of the things I love most about translating the Russian language of Ukrainian speakers, which is a kind of endangered species now: they approach it from the side, as insider-outsiders, and it makes for very rich texts. I’ve spent a good deal of time on that aspect.

The insider/outsider thing is especially interesting – how much do you identify with that, as someone not born in America but raised there?

I think of myself largely as an American. So many of us weren’t born in America, and it’s a unique culture in that regard; nativism is present but isn’t the defining feature of the culture. Most of the people who have contributed mightily to the formation of American letters and culture, from the colonial period on,, were immigrants to the United States…

… which provides an interesting subtext to your “Hollywood” title of poems; it feels like a hat-tip to the many others artists who settled in that precise area.

Yes, exactly! I feel I’m a pretty good run-of-the-mill American – but yes, of course, you are also right that there is an outsider component to it. This happens to be a nation of immigrants, but that doesn’t make me anything other than an immigrant: I am still an immigrant to the United States. The story of immigration is central to the story of America, writ large.

That inclusivity stands in stark contrast to a world that quickly ostracizes those who don’t speak the language…

It happens, but I think that’s wrong – and to my mind, very dated.

It brings to mind what Rexroth noted, that translation is an act of sympathy, or to my mind, empathy.

Yes, and it’s amazing to me that that observation had to wait until 1959 to be made – I mean, it probably didn’t, I’m sure others said something similar – but it seems so natural to me that those who enjoy translation the most, the people who are the most successful at creating readable and moving texts based on texts in other languages, are using their capacity for empathy. They really do feel deeply connected to the texts they’re reading and to the people behind them. And if you don’t feel that connection, if you just sit there mechanically translating, then you may produce a more accurate version than Google Translate, but it won’t necessarily be a fuller version – or a more appealing one.

Your work has made me ask ‘who’s the translator?” through many book purchases the last little while.

That’s so lovely – that’s as it should be! I think Jenny probably did more to accomplish that than I did, but it’s important to pay attention to the translators. There are certain translators, long dead, whose work may not be perfect, but who I feel have as much of an oeuvre as that of any author, so I will read everything they’ve done, simply because I love their artistry.

That’s similar to following the work of soloists or conductors: one may not like a particular piece or opera, but one might really love the artistry of the person doing it.

That’s a perfect analogy! The soloist or conductor is an interpreter, just like the translator.

Speaking of translations and artistry: do you have a favourite translation of Bulgakov’s famous The Master and Margarita?

That’s a tough question. I think the Michael Glenny translation of 1967 is overall the more flexible and colourful, but there are glaring errors that have yet to be corrected. If somebody were to sit down, somebody who really understands the text, and use it as the start, building it out, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands.

Because you haven’t done it yet… 

I would love to edit that Glenny text, but process-wise, one way I check – it isn’t a perfect thermometer, but it works – how good a translation is, is by the impact it has on the target culture. For instance, it was the Glenny translation that gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the later translations would’ve had that influence – they’re not quite as readable as the Glenny.

I keep being told that there has yet to appear a translation which captures the humour, the rhythm…

I think that’s generally true. We’ve made a start, but we need someone to go in there and finish. Frequently I’m drawn to older translations not because they’re the most accurate in every sense, not because they capture all the tones of the original, but because the world in which those earlier translators lived is more or less the world in which the authors lived – they were contemporaries, so when the authors described something they could see with their own eyes, those translators of long ago saw those things with their own eyes too. When they were translating a description, they knew exactly what was being described. That creates a sharper image in English, a clearer sense of what it is Tolstoy is talking about, or Dostoyevsky is talking about. I would urge people not to toss out the old versions completely; you can continue to translate and refine the texts but I think those old versions have something to offer us too.

Like literary Ur-Text?

That’s right!

There is the urge now to make plain cultural labels – ie, “this is Ukrainian; that is Russian” and to draw pat conclusions based on them.

I don’t think people will hold on to that; I think it’ll go away. Right now there’s controversy about renaming streets in Ukraine. But renaming a street from Tolstoy Street has nothing to do with saying that “Tolstoy is a bad writer.” What it’s about – and this is spelled out clearly in a LARB piece – is saying: look, there’s every reason to keep reading Tolstoy; go ahead and read Tolstoy, no one’s stopping you. But there’s a reason this street was named after Tolstoy in the first place: this country was subjugated by Russia. The reason that we have so many streets named after Russian writers and none at all named after Portuguese writers is that we were not subjects of Portuguese colonization – we were subjects of Russian colonization. So by renaming these streets in honour of Ukrainian authors and cultural figures, all we’re saying is: these are our streets. If you want to sit on the street and read Tolstoy, that’s fine. It may not be a comfortable thing for those who love Tolstoy to witness, but it’s the choice of the people who live on that street. I really don’t think this hysteria about Russian culture being cancelled will be proven to have been justified. There are a lot of reasons why we should worry about all the things happening now; the fact Russian literature will lose a few more readers in the short term is not one of them.

A couple people have written to me to say, “It’s not the time for Russian voices,” and I myself have shown preferential treatment for those writing from Ukraine – it’s more important right now. People will make that kind of editorial judgment call. Yet I can’t imagine any person, no matter how patriotic they are who will say, “I will never again read anything from a Russian, ever” –even those who are militant say, “It may take five years, or ten years; it may take twenty years,” – but at some point, I think Ukrainians will be reading Russian literature, and Russians will be reading Ukrainian literature. Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to listen to Ukrainians who are under active attack rather than to most Russians. That said, I still translate Russian authors myself; I just did a translation of a piece by Maxim Osipov (“Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia“, The Atlantic, May 16, 2022). But, to be blunt, I don’t think Russians are paying that big a price, comparatively – that’s my sense of things.

Elena Dubinets also noted in our chat how the language around how we discuss these cultures must be decolonized – a word that’s been used more and more often in this context.

Yes, and decolonization is not necessarily cancellation. Again, all we’re talking about is adding nuance to our understanding of how Russian culture functions, and has functioned, and been allowed to function, in the world. Tolstoy himself is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy is another. A monument to Tolstoy on his estate is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy in a place he never visited, simply because Russia owned it, is another.

But this questioning has led to a big moral panic in some circles – certain corners of the classical world have made quite a lot of noise about how identity politics is detracting from art and music. For instance, Prokofiev was born in Eastern Ukraine; Tchaikovsky’s paternal family were Ukrainian. What do you make of the current debate around identity politics as it relates to Russian and Ukrainian artists? 

I don’t think this is identity politics – I think this is the acknowledgement of the complicated histories of this region and of the people who called and still call it home. To say that Gogol is strictly a Russian writer or strictly a Ukrainian writer would be silly – he’s obviously a Russian writer and a Ukrainian writer, and that’s a consequence of the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. I think we as lovers of culture can arrive there – many of us are already there. Right now tempers are heated, and for good reason: cultural monuments are being destroyed by bombs. The head of Shevchenko has a bullet in it.Those things are not acceptable; those things are not going to bring about truth and reconciliation. But I do feel we’ll get through this. Both of these cultures are too strong to be eradicated, and no matter how powerful the Russian military is, it will not squash Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. which was banned over several centuries yet lives on, and is one of the most productive literary cultures in Europe right now. I don’t think anyone who aims to kill the culture as part of this conflict will succeed, and once they’ve failed decisively, we can go about creating a better, more representative picture of this region’s history, and its art.

Note: This interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022. 
Elena Dubinets, LPO, classical, music, leadership, management

Elena Dubinets: Ukraine, Russia, And Émigré Artists

Throughout my series of essays over the past three months examining various cultural, musical , and media-related aspects concerning the war in Ukraine, the one thing that seemed just out of reach was a direct view on the act of departure – or the act of remaining – from or in one’s place of birth. Recent events, most notably those around so-called “Victory Day” in Russia, have served to underline the changing realities around leaving and staying, in both tangible and intangible ways.

Russia’s list of émigré composers is lengthy; the reasons for their departure (and in some cases, return) relating to socio-cultural, financial, and political circumstances and opportunities. Perhaps the most notable Russian non-Russian, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) could only explore his culture through being away from it, not unlike his literary counterpart, the Ireland-born, Europe-living James Joyce (1882-1941). Stravinsky’s relentless curiosity and his willingness to experiment with elements of the Russia he’d left behind in various ways – milking, mocking, embracing, tossing aside those sonic elements, and surgically excising the clichés even as he sentimentally held on to their other, more personal aspects – feels, in retrospect, like a quilted instruction manual of artistic fortitude and spiritual survival. He is one of the composers examined in Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (The Boydell Press, 2012), authors Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker. The authors incisively feature a quote used by Soviet musicologist Yuri Keldysh (1907-1995), who is himself quoting critic/pianist/composer V. G. Karatygin (1875-1925), with relation to speculations on the roots of Stravinsky’s work: “The artist, while his art reflects a soul that has been splintered and corroded by neurasthenic impression, is fatigued at the same time by all this nervous tension and seeks out an antidote in the knowing return to simplicity.” Social relations, posit the authors, relate to this tension: “The less the facts of public life pointed towards hopeful outcomes, the more these demands were placed on art. Some strong and vivid external impulses were needed for this.” Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, premiered in 1911 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, reflects a dualism which became more varied if concentrated in its expression once Stravinsky embraced his émigré status. Keldysh’s observations on the work’s symbolism hold modern echoes:

By way of contrast to the noisy, notley crowd, there is Petrushka, with his sufferings and his broken heart, expressed through his convulsive rhythms and angular melodies. A wooden doll, a mere puppet, turns out to have feelings too. We have an opposition here: on the one hand, an apparently lifeless puppet jerking mechanically on his strings but capable of refined and complex feelings, and on the other hand we have the living but soulless crowd; this opposition bore a social meaning that responded perfectly to the mood of the intelligentsia during the period of reaction following 1905. A complete withdrawal from active social struggle, a forlorn subjectivism, a dissatisfaction with reality – all these were expressed through the passivity of a moribund psyche, embodied by the image of the suffering Harlequin. The bright colours of Petrushka’s folk scenes, is thus only a superficial element that throws the inner psychological content into relief.” (p. 244-245)

The bright colours seen in recent news reports, as well as across the social media pages of various Moscow-living musical figures, might be viewed thusly, with the realities of those who have left the country making for a far more grim, far less click-friendly presentation. Writer Masha Gessen captured the contemporary experience of departure thusly: “The old Russian émigrés were moving toward a vision of a better life; the new ones were running from a crushing darkness. […] As hard as it is to talk about guilt and responsibility, it’s harder to figure out what the people who used to make up Russia’s civil society should do now that they are no longer in Russia.” (“The Russians Fleeing Putin’s Wartime Crackdown”, The New Yorker, March 20, 2022) It must be noted, of course, that there are varying levels of the experience of tragedy, and that no equivalency can or should exist between Russian émigrés and those fleeing Ukraine. In an exchange with Ilya Venyavkin, who is a historian of the Stalin era, Gessen makes this point explicit: “Now that this parallel society was gone, Venyavkin could think only of the future, which had become strangely clearer. “I refuse to look at this as some kind of personal disaster,” he said. “Disaster is what’s happening in Ukraine.” (The New Yorker, March 20, 2022).

These readings, combined with observations of the numerous concerts, benefits, and tours recently, have been powerful reminders of the ways in which people respond to trauma, particularly those within the creative sphere. Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka wrote about such trauma in his 2000 paper The Ambivalence of Social Change: Triumph or Trauma? (Polish Sociological Review , 2000, No. 131 (2000), pp. 275-290). He expertly examines the coping mechanisms through which various traumatic situations and events might turn into what he terms a “mobilizing force for human agency” and catalyze “creative social becoming.” Aside from the fascinating examinations of the rise of moral panics (more on that in a future essay), Sztompka quotes American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) in his four adaptations to anomie, a term with particular currency. Merton had postulated possible consequences to social strain, elements which could be experienced via the misalignment of individual or collective ambitions, and the circumstances in realizing them. These elements formed the basis of his famous strain theory, published in 1938 in the American Sociological Review. Piotr Sztompka (b.1944, Warsaw) adapted Merton’s ideas to cultural trauma thusly as innovation; rebellion; ritualism; retreatism, elements which he discusses at length in excellent paper, written a scant decade into post-Soviet life. I fully credit Marina Frolova-Walker for the introduction to Sztompka’s work; in an online lecture last month, she provided a wonderful introduction to these concepts within the context of her own post-Soviet musical analyses. It is the innovation aspect to which I am the most interested presently, one I suspect possesses the greatest resonance within the post-pandemic realities of the classical sphere. Certainly innovation (or its lack) is a concept relevant to the many new season announcements by orchestras and opera houses of late; just how those “reimaginings” will manifest, in light of pandemic and war, remains to be seen.

Thus it was that Sztompka’s ideas, together with the currently cautious cultural climate, that I was inspired to reread Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned (Indiana University Press, 2021), by Elena Dubinets, with a fresh, curious view. As well as being an author, Dubinets is the Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), a position she began in September 2021.  A self-described Jew from Moscow with a Ukrainian spouse, Dubinets has a length and very impressive CV. She worked as Vice President of Artist Planning and Creative Projects at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for 16 years, where she also played a central role in producing and co-founding the orchestra’s in-house label. The trained musicologist was also a Chair of the City of Seattle Music Commission (appointed by the Seattle City Council), a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Washington’s School of Music, and was Chief Artistic Officer at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra before accepting her position with the LPO. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Dubinets has taught in her native Russia, as well as in Costa Rica and the United States, the country where she and her family moved in 1996. Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned examines the movement of both Soviet and post-Soviet composers within the greater paradigm of socio-political identities, ones which shifted and morphed, or not, according to geography and circumstance. Connections in and around these inner and outer realities are ones Dubinets takes particular care with; such investigations have pointed resonance to the current, perilous displacements and journeys being made by so very many. Utilizing a myriad of references and quotations from a variety of sources (including composers Boris Filanovsky, Anton Batagov, Serge Newski and Dmitri Kourliandski) Dubinets examines the 20th and 21st-century diasporic musical landscapes through wonderfully contextualized lenses of history, culture, finance, socio-religious beliefs and practises, and old and current politics, as well as the ways in which identity can and does change according to a combination of these factors.

In a Chapter titled “The “Social” Perspective”, Dubinets features an exchange she shared with composer Mark Kopytman (b. 1929-2011), outlining the cultural explorations and varied journeys which were seminal to his creative identity. Born in Ukraine, Kopytman graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and went on to work at conservatories in then-Soviet Moldova and Kazakhstan. Kopytman emigrated to Israel in 1972, where his ascent at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance (Jerusalem), from Professor, to Dean, then to Deputy Head, gave him a unique perspective on his past experiences and then-current path. He told Dubinets that his understanding of his own Jewish roots stemmed from his study of Yemenite folklore, which led directly to various compositions integrating various histories and traditions. “Would Kopytman have developed his Jewish identity had he stayed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Moldova? Most certainly not.” (p. 139) Dubinets also examines the important if often overlooked act of return. Given the current circumstances and the related antagonisms connected to speaking out against the war or not, these observations hold particular poignancy:

There is a heightened sensitivity among Russian returnees about the resentment they perceive to be directed toward them, and some clearly remember the antagonism and even discrimination they experienced when they came back […] Having studied the emigration-related consequences of the Balkan conflict, Anders Stefansson observed that relationships between emigrants and those who stayed behind often provoked the strongest outbursts of frustration and anger, even more than their memories of violence or the stigma of refugee life. The notion of Otherness and nonbelonging developed in these situations in relation to one’s territorial kin and the sense of former national unity did not guarantee welcome, tolerance, or even basic acceptance. Emigrants – many of whom later tried to return – fell from favor in the homeland and were treated as both social and cultural foreigners and national defectors. (p. 290-291)

The notion of “Russian”-ness needs to be re-examined, Dubinets posits, as she skillfully untangles the fraught web of Soviet and post-Soviet musical identities, and the twisting social connections therein. Her thoroughness and conversational writing style lend a cohesiveness that illuminates Eastern creative landscapes as well as those further afield; Dubinets puts her business acumen to good use in examining aspects of marketing, criticism, and “value” as ascribed to musicians across varying social fields, and related locales. This is a book of nuance, not of binaries, a timely work that moves past the noise of reductionism. Dubinets provides meaningful investigation into the realities of creative life amidst the current sea of both manufactured and real outrage, of profitable obfuscation and polemical thought, creating a myriad of vital understandings and illuminations of musical life, insights which are especially valuable in a time of war.

We spoke at the end of April (2022), about war, identity, and much else.

How do you see musical Russian musical identity now, especially within the wider umbrellas of socio-political and cultural shifts?

Elena Dubinets, book, author, Russian, Ukrainian, diaspora, composers, classical, historyI think the definition needs to change – it needs to be decolonized, yes. How we do it is a different story. It will take many generations, I’m afraid, to bring it to something different, because the definition is so established in our minds due to the fact that the idea of Russia as a whole has been perpetuated in the hands of successive governments, not just the current one but prior ones. They made that cultural identity a soft weapon for the country, and the Russian world, so to speak. I’m not sure if you speak Russian, but there’s a term that’s been widely used by Putin’s government, “Russkiy mir“, in order to include any Russian-speaking person on the planet. This was striking for me to realize when I was beginning to do my research about the music of émigré composers: wherever they’d go they’d do Russian music based only on their language. They could be from Georgia, Estonia, from Ukraine of course, or from Russia, but wherever they were placed on the globe, the perception is that they were Russians.

I have a similar story myself: back in Russia when I was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, I did a dissertation on American music, and when I moved to the U.S. and people realized I was speaking Russian and a musicologist, everybody who got in contact with me assumed I was a specialist in Russian music itself – and I was not. I had to slightly go with the flow, but it was an assumption that was quite often put on people and they became labeled with it. Typically this is what the current Russian government wants, and what they organized way before the war, in the late 1990s; Putin then strengthened it, but they organized these meetings of Russians abroad, so to speak, and created certain organizations for supporting the development of Russian culture and Russian music abroad. These associations were especially strong in the UK and they were run by Russian state organizations, so it was an intentional effort to broaden the scope of the government, and to put us all under the same umbrella, regardless of our differences. And it didn’t work, this idea of Russian culture.

… and now it’s biting many people back. Various forms of identity are part of the public discourse now, and identity politics, traditionally seen as being the purview of the West, are being applied in the very place that would resist them most. I wonder what you think about that, particularly within the broader scope of what is being programmed for future seasons? Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kyiv), for instance, specifically identifies as a Ukrainian composer. 

Well, there are ethnic identities, some want to change them, stick to them, become something else, not all want to be presented as Russian or Ukrainian. Silvestrov specifically wants to be considered a Ukrainian composer because this is his passion, this is what he dedicated his life to. Others will tell you, “I am a composer. I am not a Russian composer.” The same goes for women composers: “I am not a woman-composer; I am a composer.” And so… I’m in favour of people somehow identifying what they do themselves, rather than us putting them in a corner, and trying to label them with certain things that sometimes even we don’t understand. What is indeed “Russian”? It’s really hard to explain to those who are far removed from that state and culture, and for some of us, even the word “Russian” can be understood differently, because there are different words for it. One word can be translated to mean it’s a state-related identity, like Russia as a country-state – “We are Russians because we belong to the state in one way or another” – but another word can be translated as a cultural identity, a language-related identity, which would have nothing to do with the state. In my book I have discussed this concept, and the idea of cultural affiliation – it might be a useful concept to consider instead, to replace the other, much more questionable forms of national identification. What I mean by that is some people simply can’t or don’t want to be singularly associated with the state, or another state, not just Russian; it’s an idea which is applicable to all countries. You might have seen the names in my book, composers like Tszo Chen Guan (b. 1945, Shanghai), who is from China, or Lantuat Nguen (Nguyễn Lân Tuất; b. 1935, Hanoi), who is  from Vietnam – they learned Russian, it’s not their first or even their second language but they moved into Russia, and became Russian citizens. And for that reason they had to be affiliated with that specific culture and learn how to accommodate its main stipulations. They started writing Russian overtures and Russian symphonies, and went on to other cultural affiliations. So there is a way to be attached to a country even if you are not really born there.

What I’m trying to conceptualize is that the binary concepts of inclusion vs exclusion, belonging vs otherness, acceptance vs intolerance – these concepts are becoming outdated because the world has changed so much. We are on the move; we are learning new cultures. And we want to be considered as individuals rather than attached to any identity politics.

Context moves against those binary notions, although the nature of contemporary publishing is such that context is thrown off in favor of binary thinking, because it means more clicks, more views, immediate reaction; outrage. I was thinking about this when I read Kevin Platt’s op-ed in The New York Times, which made me consider composer Elena Langer (b. 1974, Moscow), whose work you write about and have programmed as part of the LPO’s 2022-2023 season. How much do you think the idea of redefinition matters? Redefinition moves against binary reductiveness, but it requires flexibility to implement. How do you cultivate that?

I think after the pandemic we have received this very unusual level of flexibility – because we had to change everything for two seasons and we had to do it on the fly, according to each situation. This season we had at least five weeks in a row when we had to make considerable changes in our programming for multiple reasons, not only covid-related but we had a storm – there were all kinds of things, and one of them was the war. For me this ability to change programming and to change, to react to the surrounding world, is absolutely necessary. I have always been troubled by the inertia of arts organizations, and particularly opera houses and symphony orchestras; we have to plan very early, at least two to three years out, and with the opera houses, it’s even more, it’s up to five years out they plan, and that’s in order to ensure availability of composers, singers, directors, conductors – everybody possible – but covid changed all of it. All the plans got shifted. Organizations are still rescheduling and will be accommodating those whose performances got cancelled during covid, for a while, but priorities are also changing, so now I’m asking myself: what should I prioritize? A piece by a Ukrainian composer or one that was cancelled during covid? I’m enjoying the flexibility this time gives us because the audiences expect that kind of flexibility; they got trained by cancellations, which is a strange thing to say. We’d print our brochures and send them out in the “before times”, and we’d stick to what was in those brochures for the rest of the year; this is what people expected from us and we were proud we could satisfy their expectations. But it all went astray, and now if I ask somebody, “What concert are you coming to here next week?” they often get confused – the programmes have been so regularly changed. And that’s the beauty of the situation, this is terrific actually, because we can swiftly implement something that hadn’t been in the plans but can be responsive to the moment.

I wonder if that relates to the first facet of cultural trauma as outlined by Piotr Sztompka, innovation, a concept that feels especially important now. Your choice of quotes from critics in both North America and the UK in your book  made me wonder how much innovation does or doesn’t travel across the ocean, particularly post-pandemic.

It’s coming, slowly! It’s much much slower than what we are used to in North America, and I’m still struggling with the fact that sometimes I have to explain very simple things to my colleagues in London. They didn’t live through BLM (Black Lives Matter), or, they didn’t have a similar experience of it; that time was a very, very different thing for them. It was mostly distant; music people here heard about it but didn’t internalize it. In the States it’s impossible not to think about it, but in the U.K., it’s largely, at least in the cultural sector, “Oh right, that.” It is slow to get it into the fabric of our thinking about classical music, and you know, we need a number of pioneers who will lead the way, like for example, my orchestra has been working closely with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) – they are definitely leading the way, they know about BLM and what they should be doing, but you know, they need to continue convincing the constituents. There are other organizations the LPO works with who are educators, they are groups who are very passionate – they don’t do programming themselves but work with the institutions who do. So I think the more of this work there is, the better it will be. The consensus exists that change has to come but they haven’t gone through things yet.

The UK is much more attuned with the concept of sustainability, however. People use public transportation here more than in North America. There, my team was trying to consider what could be done in terms of greener orchestra attendance, and because everybody uses cars it’s just not possible, but really, it’s one of those things we have to think about. It’s what we do, after all, it’s a life form – people have to physically attend – and In the U.S, to do so they have to drive, whereas in the UK it’s much more about trains, even when we’re on tour. We work with venues on certain aspects of that much more so than counterparts in the U.S. do.

One thing I appreciate your acknowledging during the recent LPO season preview recently is the overall insularity of the classical music world – “our small and somewhat isolated classical community” as you put it – but do you think that bubble is breaking up now, however slightly?

We’ve been observing a pretty interesting process here, but sadly we still can’t qualify it. What we’ve noticed this season, when we came back with the first season of live performance after the pandemic, was that many people got used to watching us online, because we had organized a major series of concerts. We streamed 35 concerts online, the same number we’d normally perform live at the Royal Festival Hall. People were receiving it in the comfort of their homes and they got used to it. Many say it’s a very different experience than when they come for live concerts, that they get something else, they get a different type of engagement – but not all of them decided to come back (live). Some of them are still worried about their health; some live too far away; there is a constituency that hasn’t returned.

However, there is a completely new group of people and it’s mostly younger people who show up randomly at our concerts. We always understand how many are coming, it used to be so subscription-based that we’d know a year out how many would come, but it’s not the case anymore; people really don’t buy until the last minute now, but they do come and they are extremely enthusiastic A recent concert with Renée Fleming is a good example. Of course she’s a star, but it felt like a rock concert! People were screaming, they were young people too – it was stunning for me to see. I’ve worked with her before, in many orchestras, but it was a totally different planet, this concert. So I’m constantly asking myself if this is what we are getting because of the covid and the streaming, if this is why people are so much more embracing of programming changes and of new music and of things they’ve not heard before – I hope this is the case. I do hope we have obtained new audiences somehow after the pandemic, but we still don’t have any statistical data.

I had a conversation with classical marketing consultant David Taylor recently and we discussed how low prices do not inspire younger audience attendance – it could be free but they wouldn’t go – it’s the experience itself, of offering something that can’t be had online.

I totally agree, and I know things we’ve learned about, that we understand what may or may not bring them in that regard. We had an Artist-In-Residence this year, Julia Fischer, who did all five Mozart violin concerti, and we had half-houses for all these concerts. Now if you asked our marketing department three years ago about this they would have said, “That’s a definitive sellout, continue doing only this stuff and then we’ll be all set with our budgets” – but people didn’t show up this time. They showed up for some random and obscure performances we hadn’t budgeted for accordingly, so yes, they come unexpectedly. It’s hard to understand at this point, as I said.

That’s part of the innovation aspect with relation to the cultural responses to trauma, seeking new experiences after two years of watching behind a monitor, although there are many who still choose to do so, whether because of economics or health, or a combination of both. It behoves many cultural organizations not to take those audiences – or how we choose to enjoy concerts – for granted.

That’s true – it’s why our goal with programming has been and will remain in balancing our repertory and offerings; we know that younger people are predisposed to new things and older people mostly prefer their blockbusters, and we’re also going back to the habit of explaining musical experiences – that is, our conductors speak from the stage. I want to say that for almost a decade such a thing was considered a no-go: “Music should speak for itself,” many would say. But now people seem to have the desire to learn more, and how do you learn if you have all possible restrictions? I’m always annoyed the lights go down during performances to such an extent it’s impossible to read the program books – you just can’t see them – and also the small type is very unfriendly. On the other hand younger people can open cell phones and read the notes online but it is too bright in the auditorium to do that, and we make a point to tell them they can’t use their devices during performances. It is an unfriendly art form in many ways when it comes to educating people about music and educating them about the experiences they have paid money to hear, so we are now beginning to talk more openly about doing pre-concert lectures and doing quick introductions from the stage right before the music. Of course we’ll be using digital means going forward as well, that’s important, we really want people to come back! They vote with their feet, and if they don’t like something, they don’t come back.

But you are also filling in the holes for an education system that has been continually underfunded over many decades. I am not sure all classical organizations themselves think of their mission this way; I recently read about a festival featuring the music of Rachmaninoff and the language consisted largely of clichéd notions of “Russian” music. Is this, I thought, how we should talk about him (or any Russian composer) anymore? It seems so outdated.

We played Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony on the third day of the war – that concert was called “From Russia With Love” and consisted entirely of Russian music: Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Second. I actually had to go onstage and say something because it was unimaginable to do the concert without any framing of it, without putting it within the current situation, whereby it could have been just cancelled outright. We could have done just that, but people bought tickets; they wanted to hear this music. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) has never associated himself with Putin, and I thought, “Why would we cancel it? We just have to position it properly.”

So we played the Ukrainian national anthem to open, after I said a few words, and really, this is what it means to be relevant as an industry: it means engaging with people’s emotions and thoughts in a particular moment. We played the anthem at a time before everyone else was doing it. I explained how Prokofiev (1891-1953), even though he is considered Russian, was born in Ukraine, specifically in the territory being bombed at the moment; as to Rachmaninoff, he left Russia because he never agreed with the regime change or its policies. Putting the music in context makes a huge difference in people’s minds…

Context, the magic word!

Yes! And we had a standing ovation after the anthem, and it wasn’t a standing ovation for only how well they played this music or how beautiful it was or is; it was a standing ovation for the fact we decided to open a concert with, let’s use this word, a “dangerous” program this way, by explaining what it means to us and why we are doing it.

I asked Axel Brüggemann about this recently and he agreed but added that such contextual information can sometimes disturb people’s closely-held perceptions of beauty in art…

So maybe he’s thinking of Dostoyevsky’s idea that beauty will save the world… and we know it will not!

It’s interesting you mention Dostoyevsky because there have been numerous discussions pondering if he should still he be held up as “the great Russian writer” considering his anti-semitism. Rather than knee-jerk reaction, my instinct as a teacher is to examine his work with  full contextual awareness, which might lead, as your book also suggests, to a rethinking of greatness, of Russian-ness, and how we use the word “genius” going forwards.

Yes, and what I tried to always state and intimate, when I can, is that Russians are very different, Russian music is a part of the Russian image, the government has used it to its own narrative, but we must never conflate all Russians, and especially Russian composers and musicians – and artists in general – into something unified. It would be anachronistic and inaccurate. In that op-ed you mentioned, Kevin Platt was trying to do this, and I don’t think it came off right, especially since he placed Gergiev and Netrebko in a strange context – but he did say Ukrainians who write in the Russian language, they certainly self-identify as Ukrainians, but they still use the Russian language, the same way as Gogol (1809-1852) did in the 19th century or Shevchenko (1814-1861) as well. They did it because Russian was the language of the empire, it was a colonizing language, and actually moving to Saint Petersburg was because of the opportunities that existed there, ones that didn’t exist for their art in Kyiv or in Ukraine in general.

We can never forget about the social element and infrastructures of how the arts are done when we examine any art form, especially music, because it is an extensive art form; you sometimes have to hire hundreds to perform your piece, and how can it be supported if the state or major donors don’t invest in the art form? We can’t forget about that reality. Some Ukrainian writers simply had opportunities in Russia, and when Russian had become a terribly universal language for all citizens of the former Soviet empire, they simply continued using this language – but that doesn’t mean they’re Russians; we can’t conflate them all into the same plot . For this reason we can’t cancel it all; we should perform it. People like Gergiev… no, that’s different. It’s clear to everyone on the planet I believe, that he specifically benefited from this government and specifically supported its war efforts; many others have not, they protested, it should also matter and it should count.

Having said that, I have experienced opinions from other folks, for example Ukrainian musicians, who think that while the war is ongoing, Russian and Ukrainian music shouldn’t be on the same platform or the same programme, and while I don’t quite agree with it, I do see the rationale for that, and I understand their position. Ultimately what they’re saying is music is their weapon as well, the same way it is and has been soft power, and a soft weapon for the Russian government, so Ukrainians are also saying, “We have this meaningful tool and we want to use it appropriately.” But there is also another element bothering me recently as a scholar of Russian music and culture: I agonize over the fact that right now is not an ideal time to advocate for Russian music, but it is impossible to reconcile the unimaginable atrocities that have been committed by Russian soldiers with the fact they were educated in school studying Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. They were part of the system and even if they didn’t internalize it, it was there, it existed. I know myself, I studied and taught there, and know how it’s done right now. So it’s hard to understand how people who had at least some cultural background and education in school, do what they’ve been doing…

Quite a few reports have explored the connection between military service and poverty, and President Zelensky has noted this also, which makes me think that for all culture they were shown in school, it doesn’t mean the same thing for them as it would for others in different areas. What is culture if you have nothing in the fridge and no job prospects outside the door? This makes me ponder our role(s) as artists / thinkers / writers / producers / programmers of culture, and of how to create or support a system that reaches past our bubble – which goes back to your points. The classical community needs to start thinking about all of this… 

… we do have to, yes, but unfortunately right now the domination of the Russian government there, in those places, is remaking the ways in which school kids, those in elementary schools, will be studying history and culture, and also unfortunately, that history and culture will now become even less based on facts and even more based on ideology. This is the reform they’re initiating right now as we speak. So who will grow up within that system, between ten to fifteen years from now, is scary to imagine. And that’s not talking only about rural areas but cities as well, because they all have the same agenda, to glorify what the army is doing right now.

The language for that glory creates and shapes a reality which is not, in fact, reality – but surely this is why we have to talk about culture, and characterize decisions in culture, very carefully ourselves, and make sure when we make these decisions public or engage in exchanges that such language is very precise and not reactionary…?

Yes, and we should do that. In Russia that sense has been killed; what exists is public television which is a very determined agenda. And going back to what you asked me about what we learned as a result of the pandemic and how Europe is different from North America: Russia is an entirely different planet. They’ve never heard of some of the concepts we are trying to implement, or they are totally against them. They are not even trying to understand or accept the realities of the current time. If you are talking about diversifying the art form, they’re never considered this. I’m worried this feeds into the overall line of the “exceptionality” of the Russian culture in general, and that idea applies to Russian musicians in particular. They don’t want to accept that there are other cultures, other important elements in our world that they need to consider.

That’s an important point, this notion of Russian exceptionalism, which has existed in parts of the Russian classical world for a long time I am not convinced such an attitude is good for art, or for people. Journalist Maxim Trudolyubov tackled the topic of Russian exceptionalism in the arts in a newsletter which attracted immense pushback from Russian artists, if also support from certain musicians, including composer Boris Filanovsky, who you quote in your book. 

You know it’s always interesting to consider how decolonization should happen, and quite an obvious way would be for those formerly colonized cultures to be considered independent of their colonizers. This is what I am observing right now: I think the deconstructing of Russian imperial identity is happening in such a way. Ukraine has always been positioned in comparison to Russia, and Ukrainian artists are often compared to Russian artists. I’ve heard here, on my job with the LPO even, on multiple occasions, that we don’t know Ukrainian music because “Oh, it’s not as good as Russian” – and this is silly. People don’t know Ukrainian music, period, because it was purposely colonized that way, it was undermined by the occupier, by the empire, by its ambitions for their counterparts who would willingly point it out to everybody, that what they do is better than what other people in the provinces do, and Russians just don’t want to hear this piece of history, we completely ignore this societal argument. So when decolonizing these cultures, say, Belarusian or Ukrainian, I think they should be able to stand on their own rather than being constantly compared with Russians – and right now the public discourse is such that it’s just not happening. Maybe a few more months have to pass. Right now our goal is to perform as much Ukrainian music as possible and convince everybody it does stand on its own, and that it does have this individuality which it was not granted in the past.

So it starts with those programming choices and the flexibility you mentioned and saying, “Yes, we are going to have this composer and that composer in our programme tonight, it isn’t announced, but here it is” – just that spontaneous?

It’s just that. We performed a piece for violin and orchestra, “Thornbush”, by Victoria Polevá (b. 1962, Ktiv) at the fundraiser for Ukraine in Glyndebourne in early April; it was not really announced but we spoke about it from the stage, and then we decided to commission a new piece from her for next season.

Our entire 2022-2023 season will be dedicated to music by composers who had to leave their own countries as refugees to displaced composers – so we’ll talk about issues of home, what is home, what is displacement, how the composers experience exile, homelessness, despair, when and why they had to drop everything and leave – and what does it mean to “belong:, in a much broader sense? Is the idea of “home” just an emotional environment they wanted to create for themselves? Or is it a certain geographic location? Is it a time and place? There are so many possible descriptors of what “home” is, and this is what we hope to explore through music next season. The idea of this season came up when I was just hired to become the Artistic Director, about a year ago, and we thought we were implementing it pretty well, we incorporated composers who had left Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany but also Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria, and you’ll hear music from all these composers although few know their names. We had to make some choices in favour of these composers instead of programming Beethoven, let’s say, who could sell us many more tickets – but we used this new season to represent our general mission. And unfortunately the idea became – I say “unfortunately” because I wish this war never happened – very relevant when the war was starting, so we commissioned Victoria Polevá, who was on the way from Kyiv to Poland to escape the bombs at the time we asked – and so she will write for us next season. This is how I understand the mission of our art form at this terrible moment: decolonizing the preconceptions about classical music.

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Essay: Music, War, & The Reality Of Cancellation (Part 1)

Chasms in the classical music world are becoming increasingly obvious as a result of the war in Ukraine. The pressures recently placed on artists to make a clear public statement, pressures which are being applied by various cultural organizations, have fomented resentments and created a whirlwind of controversy around the exercise of private and public opinions in relation to art and culture. There has been a heated reignition of the long-standing debate of how far one might (or should) separate the art from the artist. Things are not quite so clear-cut as some involved in the debate would believe, however;  the institutional motivations behind applying that pressure, and the decision to cancel Russian artists and music in some instances, are enmeshed within a tight knot of funding, education, location, history, access, and the effects of two years of pandemic on the arts landscape overall. Audiences are proving slow in their return in many markets; the optics of doing the perceived “right thing” to convince them of the value of return has never been more pronounced.

This essay began life as a series of observations on the current state of music, politics, intercontinental preconceptions, funding models, education cuts, algorithms, public relations, and evolving notions of collective responsibility. Since starting on 3 March, the piece has become longer and broader than what was initially intended, and is now an ever-evolving, super-fussy Hydra. Just when I think one section is complete, along comes… more: another piece of learning; a dire bit of news; the reading of a comment thread; a conversation; the sound of violins playing a folk song. At those times I become curious, and am forced to rethink. In the interests of organization and finitude, I will be publishing this piece in four parts, likely not wholly consecutive but interspersed with artist conversations, this website’s initial raison d’être at its launch in 2017. It has been suggested this current essayistic pursuit is more suited to book form – perhaps? The great paradox of digital publishing is its essential changeability and permanence; everyone remembers when you screw up; everyone knows when you edit. I have no problem standing thusly naked before readers – I just want to make sure I can control the temperature of the water before dropping my robe.

Part 1

It feels reductive to state “war is hell.” It is that, of course, because it makes everything and everyone around it hell, one rife with twisting corridors and uneven floors, crumbling staircases leading to ever more dimly-lit labyrinthine levels. The invasion of Ukraine has uncovered an increasingly rigid cultural exceptionalism across continents, one fast becoming the elephant in the auditorium. It is an element which is proving unhelpful for artists and audiences alike, because its existence is so patently antithetical to the notion that music is a unifying force, this concept which many artists state with urgent sincerity. How can this great oneness have any validity in the real world if a newcomer is constantly made to feel intellectually and creatively small by those holding more formal knowledge and training? The reactionary engineering of social media fosters such hostilities (and related reactivity) whilst simultaneously obscuring the practises of public relations, thus perpetuating a broad ignorance around the roles of finance and education. Such comprehension is not something governments or organizations would wish to be known, but that does not erase the validity of such investigation. One cannot simply shout “They are cancelling Russian artists!” without understanding the true mechanisms which have largely driven such cancellations; I would wager that they are less driven by xenophobia than by economics, and as much related to maintaining public relations as to pleasing donor bases. There is also, importantly, a deep aversion to risk after two years of pandemic; anything that gives off so much as a whiff of risk is duly launched off the boat, with all the expected words and righteous noises – sensitivitycommunitysolidarity. Bravo… ish.

Thus the recent claims of there occurring a giant wave of Russophobia within the classical realm (a victim narrative the Putin regime fosters, incidentally) are not completely accurate; no doubt that does exist, but one must keep context in firm focus. New York’s Metropolitan Opera, for instance, has roughly ten Russian singers, as well as Ukrainian basses Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Dmitri Belosselskiy, on board for this season and next. Such a detail holds significance; to ignore it is to ignore the necessary context which lays the groundwork for meaningful discussion. If we mean what we say, as music lovers and seeming ambassadors, we must be willing to get our hands dirty with various realities, including our own unconsciously-held beliefs and attitudes, as much as negotiating with those held by others. While classical culture prides itself on humanism, growth, and the ever-vital curiosity, I have witnessed few of these qualities in action of late from so many directly and indirectly involved parties; what I have seen is judgement, obfuscation, anger, showboating – reaction. Is there hope for sincerity? The jury is still out. As bass baritone Paul Carey Jones pondered in a recent post, “is the classical music industry all of a sudden truly serious about its desire for politically engaged artists, after a generation of hammering them into monochrome moulds of glossy PR-friendly “Living The Dream” bullshit?” In an attempt to explore pertinent issues within and around the intersections of culture, technology, politics, PR, and presentation, it seems wise to continually turn attention back, and forwards – to read, study, think, repeat, and to keep asking such questions, and expanding on them at every turn.

Such is the privilege of my own situation that I am able to pursue study, in a relatively healthy environment, with food in the refrigerator and heat buzzing on at predictable intervals. It is worth acknowledging this – the thing I ask for more of (education) and the things required to carry that out (time, money, environment) are not necessarily things everyone has access to, or easy access at that. Between hoovering, hay fever, student marking, sighing, cooking and clearing up, my days have filled up with reading, writing, note-taking, chasing people, ideas, and some cogent line of discourse, interspersed with glances at the telly every now and again. Context, as my many media and broadcasting students through the years will attest, is something of an obsession, but it takes continuous amounts of time, energy, money, and a calm atmosphere to grasp and cultivate an appreciation of context – not everyone has those things, or can so easily parcel them out; I acknowledge this (and shake angry fists at the utter failure of education systems, school boards, and arts departments here, but that’s a future essay). Context is often the very quality most often missing in contemporary discourse, and especially in times of war. Its absence, and the overall lack of commitment to its fostering on the part of artists, writers, organizations, educational departments, teachers, writers, publishers (most everyone in or around the system) has created a crater of non-awareness; that crater existed far before the start of war on February 24th but is growing exponentially, caving in on itself – and classical culture is fast becoming its most damaged casualty.

Along with an obsession of context is, as my students well know, a heavy dislike of false equivalency. Its rise not only within media presentation but the seemingly-innocuous realms of quotidian exchange is immensely frustrating for both its intellectual laziness and whataboutism, that debate-stopping, brain-melting tendency with a rather timely history. It is exhausting to wave arms against things which, over the last three weeks, have become so common, and so often go unquestioned. False equivalency hinges on giving equal weight to that which is not at all equal, but it also underscores a galling lack of empathy for which music is (again) meant to (magically, romantically) cure. Over the past week there have been numerous posts from musicians expressing concern at losing opportunities over what seems to be little more than their nationality – but (to be a bit of a broken record here) I’m not convinced that’s the actual reason for the cancellation. We all know perceptions are not reality, but oh, they certainly feel that way, and nowhere more sharply than in times of war. The wording isn’t always the same with these expressions, written in a mix of despair and outrage, but the subtext is shared: fear. Who should speak out? Is it a good idea? How much specificity is expected? As violinist Alexey Igudesman recently posited:

You are a Russian artist who lives in Moscow with a family and a child, or who has family in Russia.
If you give statements against the government, the danger of something happening to you or your family in a regime like Russia is very real.
No-one should be forced to become a martyr and put their family and livelihood in danger. If one does, that has to be the individual’s own choice.

As human rights project OVD Info outlines, such exercise of choice is not done lightly. It begs the question: is it a choice when it isn’t really a choice? Artists living in the West who have spoken out are to be lauded, but such statements are not comparable with those made by others living in the country, or with family living in such an environment. In acknowledging such a reality there is also the need to acknowledge another: “How can one feel bad for Russians when Ukrainians are  being bombed?” – there is no answer to this. There can’t be; there shouldn’t be.

Grappling with suffering means gently if consciously engaging the imagination; even (or especially) if that suffering is not ours. This is which is a key component in making the engine of empathy run. Such exercise sometimes opens the door to understanding – but more often, in this age of quick reactions and retweets, leads to un-feeling, to closing doors, to shutting down engines and kicking them down several sets of stairs. Invariably come the comparisons (of suffering; of victimization), neither side bearing equal weight to the other. (If you don’t think Putin and his gang delight in fomenting such divisions, kindly reconsider; he is arguably the author of the mud-slinging event at contemporary edition of The Suffering Olympics. Such an event merits no winners, and should not attract so many willing recruits, and yet.) Why do people engage in this? False equivalency isn’t related to “seeing all sides” –  such valuation robs us of humanity, and robs us of the ability to exercise the empathy that clearly expresses that humanity.

Alas, such reductions are the currency with which wars are waged and fought; bending too far back is dangerous, but bowing too far forwards is apologism. That doesn’t mean suffering should not be acknowledged, and it doesn’t mean such an acknowledgement negates the need for figures within the classical community to speak with clarity  at a moment when it ought to be least effortful; compassion is either present or it is not. If it is effortful, well, so the person is clearly revealed. Politics, as ever, presents a challenge. The classical community was largely silent over many things, seemingly floating above it all: James Levine, Me Too, BLM, casting couches, COVID19 – the list of issues which classical has faced are lengthy, perceived as inconvenient, viewed as overheated reaction from an over-anxious, social-media fuelled public. It’s a witch hunt! they shout, and alas, the algorithm of social media clicks along; fans obediently seal-clap, defend their heroes, slut-shame accusers, publish breathless articles filled with puffy questions that mysteriously divorce art from life. Such conversations are handy bits of propaganda and certainly make the classical ecosystem (along with non-paying publishers and ad tech) very happy. So what? The fact that war is possibly the classical world’s tipping point for meaningful change is telling; something has to give, but whether something will is a whole other matter. In a recent exchange at Tablet, celebrated refusenik Natan Sharansky offers his thoughts on the war, and remembers his own experiences of being a Jew growing up in Ukraine:

Donetsk was a very international city, it had many nations. It was an industrial center, so for 100 years people had been coming there to look for work from different parts of the Russian empire. There were Ukrainians and Russians in Donetsk, of course, but also Kazakhs and Armenians and Georgians and Tatars. So none of that really mattered. What really mattered was: Are you Jewish or not? […] Jews were the only people who were really discriminated against. There were jokes about every nation, but the real prejudices and the official discrimination were against Jews. Now, I studied in a Russian school where the second language was Ukrainian, and there were many Ukrainian schools where the second language was Russian. As a Jew, I tried to be the best in everything, so I tried to also be the best in Ukrainian literature.

The pressure on a minority group to be the very best has gone from being a shared reality among many young musicians into an uncomfortable requirement. Expectations are high; competition is rampant. Be the best at performing, and now, be the best at performing the mechanics of virtue; such is the pressure now. Any chance for meaningful change is choked in the race to apply the right level of knowledge at the right time, in front of (or with) the right people. Ever has it been thus.

Indeed, growth is uncomfortable (meaningful growth, that is), and authenticity is messy; our heroes won’t be so shiny through some forms of growth, and we may have to end our (over)use of the word “genius.”  The payoff might be more meaningful engagement –with material, audiences, program directors, artists… cultures, experiences, histories, ideas. One can show sensitivity to Ukrainian ticket buyers while simultaneously engaging them in these conversations – one is not (should not be) exclusive of the other. It’s an instinct one would have hoped would have been applied by the Canada Council, the Honens Competition (notably since reversed),Théâtre Orchestre Bienne Soleure, Kartause Ittingen, the Cardiff Philharmonic, and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the Vancouver Recital Society.

It’s easy to point at these cancellations and scream witch hunt! (Putin would want you to) but far more difficult to examine the position of each, their board members, their audience demographics, the position of unions in some of them, and the ever-significant role of funding, which matters in providing wider music knowledge and related (needed) rehearsals of new material. Perhaps the work of Serge Bortkiewicz, Yevhen Stankovych, and Myroslav Skoryk will be programmed for more than benefits alone; perhaps these works will become, like so many others, part and parcel of regular season programming. Perhaps audiences will want to hear them, and more.

Serious consideration of such possibilities hint at the acknowledgement of a needed structural change and an overdue embrace of its smart application. The grounds must exist for dialogue which is free from angry exceptionalism but open to uncomfortable realities, including anger and disappointment, sometimes with words, sometimes in the form of returned tickets. That’s the reality; some outlets will be skittish in broaching this. Two years of pandemic has meant a wholly risk-averse landscape (the effects of which can clearly be seen in cancellations now), but such initiatives – such bravery – is required. It is in the exercise of these qualities that classical culture will, perhaps, find the kind of 21st century significance many argue it sorely needs. Alongside angrily returned tickets might come, one hopes, something else: curiosity. It is a quality which lays the seeds for… I won’t call it hope (which sounds precious) but… an opening. There needs to exist curiosity – for discussion, education, expansion, uncomfortable ideas, new avenues. “Just look,” says curiosity, “at least look…”

One might stomp off across the concrete, back to the labyrinthine bunker, ignoring the green shoots pushing through that soil, seeing only craters, mud, debris; one might walk away carefully, observing tiny buds, remembering it is spring, after all; one might be grateful to see such possibility. Setting fire to the field is not the answer. It is time to breathe, and to replant, carefully.

Photo: The curtain of the Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich: “You want to shout, “Opera’s not dead!””

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Against the odds – or perhaps because of them – opera is making a welcome in some parts of Europe. Boris Godunov runs at Opernhaus Zürich September 20th through October 20th for six performances only, with baritone Michael Volle making his role debut as the titular czar. The production, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Kiril Karabits, also features bass Brindley Sherratt as the thoughtful monk Pimen and tenor John Daszak as calculating advisor Shuisky. The project is unusual for not only its unique presentation (singers in house; orchestra and chorus down the street) but for the fact it’s happening at all; at a time when live performance is being set firmly to the side, the production of an opera – any opera, but particularly one as demanding as Mussorgsky’s 1874 opera, based on Pushkin’s (written in 1825 but only presented in 1866), produced here with the immense Polish scene – feels like a strong statement for the centrality of live classical music presentation within the greater quilt of life and the good, full, thoughtful and varied living of it. In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, opera is not, as Opernhaus Zürich and others across continental Europe seem to imply, a gold-threaded frill but a sturdily-sewn hem, one comprised of the common threads of community, communication, and not least, creativity.

Thus is Opernhaus Zürich’s current production of Boris Godunov making history, particularly in an industry hard hit by a steady stream of COVID19 cancellations. It’s true that creative operatic presentation (particularly the outdoor variety) is leading the way for the return of live performance (as an article in The Guardian suggests), but the price for freelance artists has, nevertheless, been totally devastating, and many musicians are leaving (or considering leaving) the industry altogether. The cost of singing, as Opera expertly outlined recently, is immense, and in the era of COVID, there simply isn’t the work to justify such expenditure. Amidst such grimness Boris feels like a blessing, fulfilling those needs for community, communication, and creativity, needs which so often drive, sustain, and develop great artists. Two singers involved in the Zürich production, Sherratt and Daszak, are themselves freelancers and, like many, lost numerous gigs last season, a trend which is unfortunately extending into the current one. As British singers working abroad (Daszak is based in Sweden), both men have varied if similar experiences appearing in memorable stagings that highlight acting talents as equally as respective vocal gifts. Sherratt’s resume includes an affectingly creepy, highly disturbing performance as Arkel in director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Pelleas et Melisande at Opernhaus Zürich in 2016. Daszak appeared at the house in 2018 in Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Gezeichneten; his Alviano Salvago plumbing layers of hurt, shame, and a visceral, deep-rooted despair.

Both performers have, like so very many of their cohorts, experienced tidal waves of cancellations for the better part of 2020. Sherratt had been preparing his first Pimen back in March with Bayerische Staatsoper; Daszak was in Vienna rehearsing Agrippa/Mephistopheles in The Fiery Angel. Both projects were cancelled at the outset of the pandemic, along with subsequent work at Festival D’Aix en Provence, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), and The Met, respectively. The revival of the 2016 opera South Pole in which Daszak was set to sing the role of Robert Falcon Scott (the Royal Navy officer who led various missions to Antarctica), has been cancelled; its creative requirements contravene existing safety regulations in Bavaria, as Daszak explained in our recent chat; the work was have to run in November and was to have also featured baritone Thomas Hampson as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Daszak’s plans for New York are also off; he was to perform in the revival of Richard Jones’ production of Hansel & Gretel, as The Witch, this autumn. Sherratt’s workload this season has been equally hit; the long-planned presentations of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in January-February 2021, in which Sherratt was to appear as Hundig (in Die Walküre) and Hagen (Götterdämmerung), have been called off, LPO Chief Executive David Burke explaining that costs, combined with an uncertain climate characterized by ever-shifting regulations, make the highly-anticipated work impossible to realize.

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John Daszak as Schuiski in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The elasticity of Kosky’s creative approach and Opernhaus Zürich’s willingness (and budget) to allow such experimentation has allowed for ideas to be grown and cultivated entirely out of existing health protocols; as a result, the orchestra and chorus will be, for the duration of the run, performing live from the Opernhaus’s rehearsal studios a short distance away from the actual house, with their audio transferred live into the auditorium thanks to sophisticated and very meticulous sound engineering. Opera purists might sneer that it isn’t real opera at all without a live orchestra and chorus, particularly for a work that so heavily relies on both for its dramatic heft, but the artists, far from being adversely affected, seem to have energetically absorbed a certain amount of zest from such an audacious approach. While some may perceive a “return to normal” in rather opulent terms, Kosky’s approach underlines the need for opera creators and audiences to embrace more creative theatrical possibilities and practises, ones whose realization has been, for some, long overdue. In Pushkin’s play, Shuisky remarks that “tis not the time for recollection. There are times when I should counsel you not to remember, but even to forget.” Godunov himself cannot forget of course, but the era of COVID19 has inspired sharply contrasting reactions; a cultural amnesia in some spheres, with the willful neglect of the role of the arts in elevating discourse and inspiring much-needed reflection, together with a deep-seated longing for a comforting familiarity attached to decadent live presentation, an intransigent form of nostalgia adhering to the very cliches which render live presentation in such a guise impossible. Is our current pandemic era asking (and in some places, demanding) that we entirely forget the gold buttons and velvet tunics, the gilded crowns and towering headresses, the hooped skirts and high wigs? How opera will look, what audiences want, and how those possibilities and desires may change, are ever-evolving questions, ones currently being explored in a variety of settings (indoor and outdoor), within a willfully live – and notably not digital-only – context; that willfulness, as you will read, is something both Sherratt and Daszak strongly believe needs to exist in order for culture, especially now, to flourish. Is there room for surprise and discovery amidst fear and uncertainty? Where there’s a will, there may very well be a way.

This will which is manifest in the realization of Boris Godunov in Zürich has its own merits and related costs both tangible and not, but the production’s lack of a live chorus is not, in fact, a wholly new phenomenon. The physical presence of the chorus has not always been observed in various presentations of Boris Godunov; at London’s Southbank Centre in early 2015 for instance, conductor and frequent Kosky collaborator Vladimir Jurowski, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, presented three scenes from work with a chorus recorded during prior OAE performances at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Kosky himself, as you’ll read, joked before rehearsals began about this onstage presence, or lack thereof. As both Sherratt and Daszak noted during our conversation, the level of quality in Zürich renders a sonic immediacy which, even for artists so used to live interaction, is startling; the actual lack of physical presence of what is by many considered the central “character” of Godunov as an actual dramatic device holds an extraordinary meaning in the age of social distancing and government-mandated quarantine. An extra layer of meta-theatrical experience will be added, consciously or not, with the production’s online broadcast on September 26th, a date neither singer seemed particularly nervous about – rather, there is a real sense of joy, in this, and understandably, in getting back to work. Our lively, vivid chat took place during rehearsals, with the bass and tenor discussing staging and music as well as the politics of culture and the role of education, which seems to be more pertinent than ever within the classical music realm. Of course the intercontinental divides in attitudes to culture can be distilled into financial realities (funding for the arts is higher in some places than others) but within that framework lies the foundational experience of exposure, education, and awareness – and, as Sherratt rightly point out there, the will to make things happen in the first place.

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Barrie Kosky’s production of Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich, 2020. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

How are rehearsals going?

JD Good! It’s surprising when I think, considering we have no chorus onstage and no orchestra in the pit, at how it’s going particularly well – they’re a kilometre away, up the road in another building. The sound is being piped in by fiber optic cable. We were worried things could go wrong but generally they’re getting on top of it. It was good today wasn’t it, Brin?

BS It’s amazing. All these monitors and speakers are in the pit pretty much, so it sounds like the orchestra is down there.

JD And actually they have so many different speakers and microphones and they all sound directional, like different sounds in different areas of the pit… it’s quite incredible.

When I spoke to Barrie earlier this summer he referenced this production a few times – it sounds as if you don’t have a problem with the way it’s been organized with the orchestra, or… ?

JD It’s a problem in that it’s not the same sound we’re used to; they’re playing live but it’s almost impossible to replicate an exact sound, no matter how much they spend on the system to replicate that live sound. We’re worried about balance because a sound guy is controlling the volume and at times they need to increase the chorus to sound more present onstage, but they have enough time to work on it.

BS It was dicey at the start, but it’s getting better all the time. Kiril (Karabits) is with the orchestra and looking at a monitor of us on the stage, and where the conductor should be is a monitor, so we watch the monitor as we do for other monitors normally, and the orchestra also have these screens and they can see what’s happening on the stage. It’s not as if the conductor was there he would see it all as big as life; he has a limited view of the hall to look at. If anything I think his job is the most difficult because he doesn’t have that direct contact with the stage all conductors are used to having.

Is it challenging as a singer to not have that live energetic exchange with a conductor?

JD We were concerned about that, all of us – we didn’t know what it would be like. I remember in Royal Albert Hall years ago, when they’d do opera in there, and the orchestra was behind you so you had to watch the monitors, but the conductor was at least there, live. Here he’s not in the same building, and we were concerned about that, but we had a lot of rehearsal with him before we got to the stage; we’ve had three, almost four weeks in the studio before we came to the stage, and then rehearsals onstage with him live in the pit. Normally by that point a conductor is pretty used to what we’ll do and we’re used to doing what he wants, and that’s the case here too, so won’t be too problematic for us – moreso for him, especially if something goes wrong onstage. He has to be very attentive to that.

It must be a nice feeling to be back on stage – the last time was in Vienna for you, John?

JD Yes that’s right. We started rehearsals in March – we got two weeks into The Fiery Angel but then the shit hit the fan and we were all sent home. That was my last live performance, apart from a couple concerts at home in Sweden, which weren’t professional in the same way. It’s nice to get back onstage.

opera, production, Zurich, Opernhaus Zurich, Brindley Sherratt, Pimen, Barrie Kosky, stage, production

Brindley Sherratt as Pimen in Boris Godunov in Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Brindley, you were about to rehearse another Boris Godunov (directed by Calixto Bieito) in Munich before it was cancelled, yes?

BS In fact they called me an hour before the first rehearsal to say, “Don’t bother coming in” – I’d arrived the night before. The last time I was on the stage in a fully-staged opera was November of last year in New York, so it’s been ten months really, and now, getting back, it feels like normal – I slipped into the rhythm of it and got used to singing in an opera and all that goes with it, and it feels like normal; I’d almost forgotten. It’s a desert everywhere else.

JD I felt like a criminal getting on the airplane to come here.

BS I feel here in Zürich, even now, they’ve clamped down a bit. You have to wear a mask on public transport and in the shops but there isn’t the same atmosphere of fear as in the UK, of doing this dance to avoid people – there isn’t that, generally speaking, they’re more relaxed I would say – but like John, I felt when I was about to get on the Eurotunnel in my car, a little bit of survivor’s guilt. Because you want to tell everybody that “I’m going to work! I’m going to do an opera in the theatre!” – you want to tell them it’s going to happen in places where they are courageous and able to fund things and you want to shout, “Opera’s not dead!” – but at the same time you are aware that a lot of your colleagues are out of work.

JD I’ve had mixed responses – a lot of people say, “We want to hear how it goes, because it  gives us hope, every little bit of things turning back on is good to see, because it means it’s coming back together.” I just had another run of performances cancelled in Munich in November  – I’m doing the Wozzeck coming up, but was also going to do South Pole but they’ve had to cancel it because they can’t fit the orchestra – which is a big orchestra with lots of technical things they need to sort out – they just can’t fit it in the pit safely…  and Munich is a massive house. Seriously, you have to have vision; I think Zürich is very brave doing this. A lot of people could say, “Well this isn’t really live opera!” but it is; we’re all playing together, we’re just not in the same building. I think they’re very courageous to do this. It means they can now open, and they’re running their normal season. It will take a while to get back to real normality but I think it’s a really good idea and it seems to be working.

BS Obviously we kind of hope this will be paving the way, or pioneering the way, cutting the through the jungle, that people will come and say, “Maybe we can do something this way, with social distancing” – there’s a chorus of fifty and an orchestra of eighty that are in a room somewhere else, and that can be done in lots of spaces. A lot of ideas can spring from that sort of arrangement.

JD It’s not an ideal situation…

BS… but it’s something.

JD … yes, it’s a great thing to start with. We need to see live performances in theatres; as soloists, we are giving as much as we can onstage, and I think I’ll be an operatic experience. It’s just not going to be a comparatively normal operatic experience, but for a start, I think it’s a great solution.

opera, production, Zurich, Opernhaus Zurich, John Daszak, Shuiski, Barrie Kosky, stage, production

Michael Volle (L) as Boris Godunov and John Daszak (R) as Shuisky in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

How much do you see projects like this leading the way in the COVID era? I’m not sure this production of Boris would be accepted in some places, which have very specific ideas about how opera should look and sound.

JD I think there are big arguments…  if you’re reliant on sponsorship, ticket sales, you’ve got to be more commercial or at least you’ve got to cater for what you think people want, rather than really cutting-edge art, in my view. I think the European system of public funding, especially in Germany, Spain, France, Italy if there is any money there, they’re not reliant on ticket sales so they can be far, far more adventurous, and that’s why I think there’s this tradition of pushing the borders, especially in Germany, with trying new ideas. I think it’s vital to experiment. There should be an allowance to to fail – I don’t see any problem with that. If a director wants something or a conductor wants and tries something, and we try to fulfill that for them, and it fails, so be it. It’s what we do as artists.

You won’t be performing in quite a full house, is that right?

JD The seating capacity in the theatre in Zürich now… I think we’re allowed 500 in one place and now 1000.

BS … which is great, it’s a small theatre anyway, but I think it’s more of an issue of countries and governments being comfortable with the audience being safe, not only the artists; that’s the main issue. Back in the UK they’re still allowing indoor performances so long as it’s socially distanced – and despite that, there is nothing happening in the West End. The health secretary dictated meetings of no more than six people and everybody went “WHAT?! We have stuff in the diary!” And the culture secretary sent a tweet out to clarify that that rule doesn’t apply to socially distanced performances; we can still have those. So I hope there is something happening soon.

To be involved in this Boris feels historic somehow… Do you feel the weight of that?

BS I don’t think we’ll forget it – not just because it’s one of the few contracts I’ve got left in the season, but because of the experience, the whole thing of working in this environment, it’s become more familiar now, like normal now, you just become aware quickly it isn’t the same.

JD We feel very lucky to be able to do this, to be one of the first to spring back to life. There is a guilt there as Brin said, but at the same time you are aware you’re giving hope to your colleagues. I’m pretty confident it will be successful, and we have the right guy at the helm. Barrie sent me a message before rehearsals started saying, “Hmmm, Boris Godunov without a chorus onstage: challenge of a lifetime!”

BS I always thought, if anybody can think out of the box, it’s Barrie. He could quickly come up with an idea, like, “Here, let’s do this” rather than, “OH MY GOD! MY PRECIOUS CREATION THAT TOOK YEARS OF PLANNING IS GONE!” It was, “Okay, let’s just do this, and see how it goes.” It’s thinking on your feet, thinking out of the box.

JD It’s been an inspiration to see and be around. I must say, when I heard our production of South Pole in Munich was getting cancelled, I said to my agent, “Surely they could do something like what’s being done in Zürich!” Bear in mind, the cost of the equipment is apparently astronomical. This quality of sound… when they started the overture yesterday, there’s a bassoon, and it sounded like it was in the pit… like a bassoon, right in the pit! Before, it sounded tinny, and they adjusted things and I think they’ll improve the sound with each performance. I think it’s millions they’ve spent…

BS It’s a lot of money.

JD … so it’s something to bear in mind, that not everyone can afford this kind of cutting-edge technology, but my gosh, it sounds almost like the orchestra is really there.

Brindley Sherratt, opera, bass, singer, voice, vocalist, classical

Photo: Gerard Collett

How much do you think this sense of immediacy is experienced by various audiences?

BS Well I went to a concert here recently and…  I was staggered. It was pretty much a full house, we all had masks on but the orchestra on stage were as normal. At first, when the band started to tune up, I thought, my God…  then they played some pieces which I love,and I welled up because it reminded me of when I was a trumpet player in the youth orchestra years ago. So I felt emotional anyway because of that, but it was the sound… that live sound, the sound of applause and cheers and laughter and people standing up and showing their pleasure, that was the most moving part. Chatting to people afterwards, I said what I’d been thinking, how elsewhere it’s a bit of desert. And the orchestra manager actually said, “Maybe also there isn’t the political will, or the will overall.“ And indeed, there isn’t this sense of, “We must have this back; it is vital to our society to have this back,” it’s “How soon can we get back to the pub, and the club, and have our football.” It’s a different emphasis. Sure, it’s the cash and government funding, but there’s also the actual will that we have to do something. The arts is much more highly prized here; culture is an essential part of life.

JD In Germany you go on the U-Bahn and you hear classical music being piped in down there…

BS … and in Vienna, on the subways on the walls, there are videos of various shows, and you walk down the road, I can’t remember the one, and on the pavement are all classical musicians.

JD The main problem over the years is that we’ve lost music education in schools. It’s just like having a language; if you are not brought up to learn Russian, how can you suddenly hear it and understand?

BS Bravo, John…

JD There’s no money in music education anymore, it’s dwindled over the last twenty-five or thirty years, and it’s the same all over the world now, but at different stages. Even in Germany there’s less and less support for the arts, really, and I think that leads to younger people growing up not understanding classical music, and thinking it’s somehow elitist. When I was a youngster there were choral societies all over Britain; we used to learn all the various songs and styles. If we don’t educate youth on these things, we’re in trouble, but of course, there’s no political weight in it.

BS There’s no political weight or will, and that’s the issue.

JD I heard years ago in the UK it’s science, maths, and technology, those are the things they were promoting and encouraging in schools, and for some reason they don’t see music and culture as important but as we said about Barrie, it’s about thinking outside the box. Theatre and music and drama are all about using your imagination, and I think it’s a really big problem to not have that ability to think outside the box, in any field. A Nobel Prize winner was once asked what his biggest influence was and he said, “My bassoon teacher.”

So how have you been keeping up your own training and education over the last few months?

BS I kept my voice going for fun, and learned some stuff for next year, and then I went on holiday for a couple weeks, then I came back and thought, “I better start singing Boris” – and my voice was just crap! The first few weeks felt dry and horrible. The last couple of days, it does feel a bit better; I don’t know if that’s the way I was singing or something, it was… being onstage again, you just find a way of going for it. I think a lot of it is mental – singing big, singing big music, singing in a theatre – you have to find something different amidst all of it …

JD I think it doesn’t matter what the music is – it can be difficult or not, but you have to make a beautiful sound. This (work) is far more conversational, I mean Brin has a much more challenging role than I do, Shuisky is not so much about vocal production, it’s quite a short role, an important one, but it’s more conversational and there’s more intrigue with the character, so for me it was not the same challenge. The weird thing is, I felt so far away from the business; I was surprised at that. I didn’t want to leave home – I’d been there for five months, which is odd for us opera people, who spend such long periods of time away. Suddenly you’re with the family and experiencing real life in a way you really don’t otherwise. When your life is frequently away from home you miss out on the normal life that most people experience. So it was great to have the opportunity to be there for a few birthdays and family gatherings, and to work on the garden for once; normally you go away and you come back two months later and everything is on the ground and you think, “I’m only here for three days, what will I do?!” It’s been amazing, growing things in the garden, going out on the boat fishing, seeing family a lot – it has been fantastic – but I have felt so far away from opera in some ways. Then with Boris it was, “Oh! I have to go back to work!’ and I put it off for a while thinking, “Ah, it’ll be cancelled” – that was the first thing; then a few weeks went by and my agent rang and said, “It’s definitely happening” and I looked at the music and was 120% working on it. Fortunately I’m not having to sing that extremely for this, but anything is hard when you’re out of it and have to come back. There’s also the mental pressure: you haven’t performed in such a long time, and suddenly you’re back with top-notch professionals, in a top-notch theatre, and you have to put it back on again! I remember Brin and I talking about it, this feeling of, “Oh gosh, we’re back to square one” but within two weeks, everything was back to normal, and it doesn’t feel any different. I didn’t expect that.

BS As John said, for a while you think, “So long as I have a nice meal and some nice wine and sing a little bit, honestly, it’s fine” but then suddenly, somebody says, “We need more of this and that sound” and you go, “Oh goodness, I forgot about this!”

JD Brin was a bit depressed to start with – he wasn’t himself. Pimen is a big role, it’s in Russian, it’s lots of work and memorization, but also it’s getting back into the business, and the character is rather depressive as well, so it was … kind of a mirror of what’s been going on in real life.

BS That’s the thing: mental fitness is an issue, not just vocally or physically, but mentally. I mean, last week I was amazed we did back-to-back stage piano rehearsals and I was really tired, physically tired; I’m just not used to it – I’m okay now, but was a bit scary! After this I have a contract to do some concerts in Madrid, but after that, I just lost two projects early next year – the LPO Ring won’t happen – and I don’t have anything in the calendar until March-April 2021, which is terrifying really. I am just getting going again.

So as you get going now, are you already thinking about the end of the run?

BS Oh for sure.

John Daszak, opera, tenor, singer, voice, vocalist, classical

Photo: Robert Workman

How do you keep your focus?

JD Over the years you get thick-skinned with our business, because it’s pretty brutal from day one. You start off singing in college and go out and audition and don’t get jobs and someone says you’re terrible and someone else says you’re fantastic but doesn’t give you a job; the next year they offer you a job but you’re already booked… I mean, you get used to the whole spectrum of good and bad. So I think most singers are pretty thick-skinned and used to disappointment… but this is a very strange phenomenon; it’s abnormal for everyone in every walk of life. We’ve been hit badly but so have lots of people. It’s sunk in to accept it now;. I’ve had work cancelled – Munich and The Met’s been cancelled, it was supposed to be Hansel and Gretel (it’s a gift to play the witch!) and it’s just strange.

… which is why things like Boris Godunov seem so precious. 

JD I’m pretty positive about the future, but not the immediate future.

B Not immediately – you have a contingency plan for say, three or four months, but not for the best part of a year. And no matter what you earn or what stage you’re at or what job you have, if someone says, “I’ll take away your income for the best part of a year, from tomorrow” – it’s a massive belly blow.

JD Nobody can prepare for that, really. We’ve not experienced something like this for a long, long time.

This era has really revealed the lack of understanding of the position of those who work in the arts.

JD There are massive overheads – people don’t realize that. I mean, I’m from a working class background in the north of England –there was nothing posh about my upbringing.

BS The same goes for me, I mean there are some singers who do come from privileged backgrounds but equally there are those of us who didn’t, at all; we had humble starts and had our introduction was through school teachers or family music, and that’s how we did it. The circles John and I are privileged to work in do have people who are quite well-heeled, but as far as the performers go, that isn’t the case at all.

JD The thing is, the more we take away from music education of young people, the more elite it will in fact become, because it’ll only be the rich people who can afford lessons and upper class families who know about it and were educated in that. It’s fighting a losing battle in some places. My wife sang for a few years, she was part of a group of three sopranos, and they sang at the Nobel Awards and had quite a big profile in Sweden, and they used to do things, going into schools, and allowing someone to hear operatic voices in a room; it’s amazing the effect that has, a properly-produced sound from a human body. And it was really shocking for some people to hear that. I think it’s important to be exposed to this music, to close your eyes and use your imagination – that’s what it’s all about; that’s why we’re in the theatre. It’s all about the power of imagination. We really have to remember that now.

Andreas Homoki: Expanding The Language of Theatre

homoki interview

Photo: Frank Blaser

There’s a certain logic to particular careers beginning in particular ways, especially ones that anticipate future pathways.

Oper Zürich Intendant and director Andreas Homoki is known for his strong creative vision, so it’s fitting that his own opera career didn’t begin in an quiet way, but with a work featuring big ideas and sounds, with Strauss’ monumental Die Frau ohne Schatten in Geneva in 1992; it went on to win the French Critics’ Prize upon its transfer to Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet in 1994. As a freelancer, the German-Hungarian director went on to stage a myriad of works (by Gluck, Verdi, Mozart, Humperdinck, Puccini, Lortzing, Bizet, Strauss, Berg, and Aribert Reimann) for houses across Europe (Cologna, Hamburg, Hanover, Leipzig, Munich, Berlin, Basel, Lyon, and Amsterdam), before becoming Principal Director of the Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) in 2002; he ascended to General Director (Intendant) in 2004. Over the next eight years, Homoki, who hails from a family of musicians, helmed productions of Eugene Onegin, La bohème, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Rosenkavalier, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Bartered Bride, and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as giving the world premieres of two works on the KOB stage: the children’s opera Robin Hood by composer and singer Frank Schwemmer, and Hamlet by composer-conductor-pianist Christian Jost.

Homoki went on to became Intendant at Opernhaus Zürich in 2012, replacing Alexander Pereira (currently the outgoing sovrintendente of Teatro alla Scala), who had been in the role for over two decades, and who’d been responsible for bringing some much-needed pizzazz to the Swiss opera scene. Pereira also famously insisted on a myriad of new productions each every season. The company grew considerably under his leadership in terms of the ambitiousness of its stagings as well as its clout within the broader international opera scene. But as I wrote in my feature on Zürich’s classical scene for Opera Canada magazine last year, “if Pereira brought a cosmopolitan energy, Andreas Homoki brings a highly eclectic one.” Such eclecticism is frequently expressed in his choice of repertoire. Homoki has made a very conscious decision for the company to heartily embrace its past, fortifying ties with the city’s artistic roots and reminding audiences of the contemporary (and in many cases, theatrical) nature of the art form. Oper Zürich is where, after all, several important twentieth century works enjoyed their world premieres, among them Berg’s Lulu (1937), Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1938), and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (1957).  Der Kirschgarten, by Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn (based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard) was presented in 1984 to inaugurate the newly-renovated house.

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Opernhaus Zürich. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Since his arrival in 2012, Homoki has staged numerous productions (Lady Macbeth of MtenskFidelio, Médée, Wozzeck, I puritani, and Juliette by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů), and helmed the premiere of Lunea by the celebrated Heinz Holliger, about the life and work of 19th century polymath poet Nikolaus Lenau. (One reviewer noted the production was “one of the season’s most unforgettable, if pointedly cerebral, musical encounters. Indeed, Lunea may well set the stage for the next generation of opera.”) In May 2020, Oper Zürich presents another world premiere, Girl With The Pearl Earring by composer Stefan Wirth, which will feature baritone Thomas Hampson as painter Jan Vermeer. In addition to creative programming, Homoki has introduced pre-performance chats as well as “Opera for all” live broadcasts at Sechseläutenplatz (the largest town square in the city), an initiative he began at the start of his tenure. Homoki doesn’t so much court risk as embrace expansion. “In the arts, everything less than the maximum is ultimately insufficient,” he noted last year, adding:

We as artists are increasingly caught in a balancing act between the demands of parts of the audience always wanting to see what they cherish and parts of the specialist press and opera world calling for new interpretations. We are sometimes pulverised by the conflicting expectations. My aim is to overwhelm the audience so much with the overall experience of opera that it actually forgets it’s even at the opera. This is admittedly a maximum aspiration but nonetheless achievable.

Such aspiration has manifest not only in terms of his repertoire choices, but within the approach he takes to stagings. Homoki’s wonderfully absurdist production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (conducted by Teodor Currentzis) was a million miles away from the bleakness that so often characterize the work’s presentation, offering a vividly surreal vision while simultaneously offering poignant insights about the fraught nature of human relating. Strong reaction doesn’t seem to bother him; Homoki’s unconventional if highly fascinating take on Verdi’s La forza del destino last spring was met with criticism, to which he said that booing “is often part and parcel of an innovative production. Particularly for productions that collide with traditional views. You have to live with it.” By contrast, Homoki’s commedia dell’arte-meets-puppet-theatre vision of Wozzeck (first staged in 2015) was met with high praise, one review observing “a finely honed production that follows its premise to an absurdist conclusion with slick theatricality and dispassionate zeal.” It will enjoy a revival at the house in February 2020.

This force of his vision extends far beyond his own projects. “I don’t hire directors who are not able to surprise me,” he commented in 2018. Zürich audiences were certainly treated to surprise or two last autumn, with highly unconventional productions by Barrie Kosky and Kirill Serebrennikov. Kosky, the current Intendant of KOB, brought a highly unique and psychologically unsettling staging of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten to the stage. Together with conductor Vladimir Jurowski, the production offered a decidedly different vision to the ones previously presented in Munich and Berlin; whole scenes, characters, and large swaths of the score were entirely excised, with the results sharply divided audiences and critics alike. Serebrennikov, the recently-freed Artistic Director of the Gogol Centre in Moscow,  presented Cosi fan tutte (led by conductor Cornelius Meister) not as a romantic comedy but as a dark drama, with the male leads having been killed in battle when the production opens. Homoki hired Serebrennikov after seeing the Russian director’s staging of Salome for Oper Stuttgart in 2015 and his The Barber of Seville for KOB a year later. Last fall, Homoki strongly stood by the Russian director as he tried to helm Cosi in Zürich while still under house arrest in Moscow, telling a Swiss media outlet, “I could not let down this man I consider innocent.

Last month Homoki and his efforts were recognized when Zürich won Best Opera House at the inaugural Oper Awards in Berlin, with the eight-member jury commenting that “(t)he director’s intuition for new, innovative directors, the commitment of the best of the established and the consistently top-class cast of singers with exciting debuts make the Zürich Opera House under Andreas Homoki a most worthy address.” The Intendant himself commented that the award was “an incentive to live up to one’s own expectations” in future. It remains to be seen if he’ll live up to those expectations this season, which promises to be a busy one, but the director seems determined to give his all. His older productions of Hänsel und Gretel, Rigoletto, and La traviata are to be staged this season at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Hamburg, and Oper Leipzig, respectively, and his new production of Gluck’s Iphigenia en Tauride will be presented in Zürich in early February. The house will also host a raft of his revived productions, including Nabucco, Fidelio, and Lohengrin, and Wozzeck. In addition, Homoki returns to the Komische Oper Berlin, where he’s set to direct Jaromír Weinberger’s 1926 romantic comedy Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer (Schwanda The Bagpiper) – a so-called “ode to Bohemia” – which opens in March.

A quick note for clarity: owing to flight mishaps, Homoki and I weren’t able to actually speak on the telephone but Homoki did kindly offer thoughts via email.

A question for many leaders in the opera world has been balancing new work with old favourites. How much of a challenge have you faced in presenting contemporary works at Opernhaus Zürich? 

The Zürich Opera has the great advantage of being able to produce nine new productions on the main stage per season — and entirely on its own. This allows us to offer a broad programme, which includes all periods from early Baroque to the contemporary. We therefore present at least one contemporary opera, if not a commissioned world premiere, plus usually one piece of the twentieth century. We are actually obliged by the government to commission at least one new opera for our main stage every second year, which we are happy to do!

However, we have to be aware that contemporary operas do not attract the same audience figures as major repertoire titles. We therefore program contemporary titles a little more carefully with less performances and special marketing.

Homoki director oper opera award Zurich Intendant

At the inaugural Oper Awards in Berlin, September 2019. (Photo: © Kathrin Heller)

How closely do you work with conductors? Does it differ between individuals? I find the dynamic fascinating because so much of the energy of that relationship is felt onstage. What’s your approach?

It is during the rehearsal process when the collaboration between conductor and director gets important as it affects the detailed work with the singers who have to merge both musical and dramatic aspects to shape their stage character. It’s therefore important to verify beforehand that both tend to a similar point of view with regards to the staging. This also refers to possible changes in the musical shape, such as cuts or special versions of certain operas. However, the conceptual work of the director is much more time-consuming. Another important partner for a director at the very beginning of his considerations are his designers, since the stage design is part of the overall production concept, which is created at least one year before the start of rehearsals.

I work with Dmitri Tcherniakov (Oper Zürich: Jenůfa, 2012; Pelléas et Mélisande, 2016; The Makropulos Affair, 2019) because I like good directors who are not only able to develop their own strong vision of a piece but are also capable of creating lively characters that interact on stage in a credible way. This may sound simple, but there are few directors who put emphasis on both.

How important has been it for you to put  your own stamp on things? At Komische post-Kupfer, and Zürich post-Pereira, audiences & company personnel tend to have strong opinions about “the new person” and what they perceive he/she will bring.

I had the advantage that my two predecessors had been in office for over twenty years. The situations were due for change, which was also noticed by the media. In the case of Komische Oper, however, it was a difficult task, since the necessary changes were not only related to the aesthetics of the productions, but above all, to changes in management, such as the establishment of reliable controlling structures, modern marketing and much more. The introduction of such new structures always causes fear and resistance in a company, especially if one regards the Komische Oper as the former flagship of East German music theatre. Keeping the project on track was much more difficult than expected, but in the end, our efforts paid off and when I left I was able to hand over a much more efficient Komische Oper to my successor.

Artistically, my main goal (at KOB) was to improve the musical quality and expand the actual theatrical language of the theatre, which was previously more like a showroom of the responsible director. My approach was to form a group together with strong colleagues who all followed a similar philosophy, which, in turn, would shape a new aesthetic of the house on a larger scale. We were fortunate to have the young and promising Kirill Petrenko as chief conductor and — perhaps even more fortunate for the house — I found Barrie Kosky, who had previously only worked in Australia, as one of our regular guest directors. I was glad that, nine years later, he took over the company as my successor.

In Zürich it was more a question of restructuring production processes by reducing the number of new productions from twelve to a much more reasonable, but still quite high, number of nine productions per season. My predecessor focused more on conductors than on directors. So I was able to introduce a new and interesting group of exciting directors who had never worked here before. The directors were surprisingly well received by an audience that proved to be very curious and enthusiastic.

What’s the role of politics in art for you? Your production of David et Jonathas, for instance, has a very affecting subtext which seamlessly blends the personal & the political.

The theatre has always been concerned with conflicts between the individual and society. Even though our societies have developed strongly towards individual freedom, certain conflicts remain timeless and return with each generation.

As a director, when you try to transform the original scenery into something new and contemporary, you have to be very careful and consider every possible aspect that might lead to contradiction in your own concept. If you make a wrong decision, the work will resist. So every production is a new adventure.

Fellow Hungarian cooking question: to cook goulash in the oven or not? I do this, to very nice results.

Goulash in the oven? Never thought or heard of it, but it sounds intriguing though. I have to try it next time.

Vladimir Jurowski: “I Can Surprise People And Also Be Surprised Myself”

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Photo: (c) Simon Pauly

2018 has been a busy one for Vladimir Jurowski. Since I interviewed the Moscow-born conductor about composer Claude Vivier in February, he’s been on a non-stop train of events, announcements, and ceremonies. He was in the middle of a very hectic spring tour with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra when news came that he’d won the Conductor of the Year at the 2018 International Opera Awards. On May 9th, he won the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) Music Awards for Conductor. The Awards, described as “the Oscars, the BAFTAs and the Grammys all in one” for classical music, were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 recently.

Currently in Paris preparing a new production of Mussorgsky’s historical drama Boris Godunov with Belgian director Ivo van Hove, the conductor — well-read, artistically adventurous, very articulate — is on the cusp of entering something of a new world. It March it was announced that he’ll become the next General Music Director of the prestigious Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera), alongside Serge Dorny (currently Director of the Opéra National de Lyon), as Intendant in the 2021-2022 season. He’ll also lead a new production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, directed by Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barry Kosky, opening at the famed Munich house in the first half of 2021.

I write “something of a new world” because, of course, Jurowski has been immersed in various facets of the new throughout his life. Raised in Moscow, the son of a conductor and hailing from a long line of artists and musicians, Jurowski and his family moved to Germany as a teenager; not long after, he had his first opera conducting job at the Wexford Festival Opera, and then made his Royal Opera House debut (with Verdi’s Nabucco) in 1996. From there, Jurowski developed something of a “wunderkind” reputation, but proved, with great flair and a creative confidence, that he was far more than a youthful flash-in-the-pan. Among many appointments, he was, from 2001 to 2013, Music Director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, a celebrated summer event known for its theatrical and musical adventurousness. Last year he returned there to conduct the world premiere of Hamlet — based on the famous Shakespeare work —by Australian composer Brett Dean. (I liked this.) He’s made celebrated recordings and led performances of both opera and symphonic repertoire at a variety of famous houses, including numerous appearances at the Metropolitan Opera.

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

In 2013, his reading of Die frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without A Shadow) was hailed (rightly) by critics, and remains, one of my most cherished musical experiences — one that, in fact, opened the door to my hearing and feeling Strauss in a way I, being raised on a diet of melodious opera chestnuts by a Verdi-obsessed mother, hadn’t dreamed could ever be possible. The opera is lengthy, but time flew by that particular evening, and I remember the mix of feelings I experienced at its end (joy, sadness, contemplation) — but mainly, I remember the wordless…  ecstasy.

Whether it’s Sleeping Beauty or Petrushka, Stravinsky or Prokofiev, Brahms or Bruckner, Jurowski is an artist who sees no lines between the thinking and the feeling aspects of music-making, and indeed, music experiencing. Heaven and earth, Emotion and intellect, heart and mind, flesh and spirit; these things are not separate to or within Jurowski’s artistry or approach. It makes his work exciting to experience, and sometimes, even life-changing.

As such, it logically follows that he’s busy. Titles include being Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), Principal Artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), Artistic Director of both the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (Evgeny Svetlanov), and Artistic Director of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania. As of last fall, he is also Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), who announced their new (and very creative) season just days after we spoke in Berlin earlier this year.

Once I flipped through the immense program (which came bound by a plantable peppermint seed wrapper), I wanted to chat with him again, about the new season and its clear underpinnings in social consciousness – as well as about the LPO, and most especially the Munich appointment. Opera people like to talk (and/or argue) about the relative merits of updating works, the need to attract new audiences, and what role (or not) tradition might play. If you asked a classical music person what needs to happen in opera, you’d get a predictably wide array of opinions. I wanted to ask Jurowski the implications of bringing a forward-looking ethos to Munich, one of the most famous of houses, and discuss the expectations being brought to an art form that has, at various points and locales, been the antithesis of innovation.

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Vladimir Jurowski leading the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in September 2017 as part of Musikfest Berlin. Photo: (c) Kai Bienert

There’s a real thread of social conscience in the new RSB season — the theme of “humans and their habitats” features strong ideas around nature and responsibility, both in the music and in the extracurricular programming choices. Why this theme, now?

Well, I do not believe that music can alleviate societal ills. I don’t believe classical music can cure anything in society or change people We know about so many terrible human beings who were classical music fans, including Hitler, Goebbels and Stalin; they loved their classical music and it didn’t make them better people in terms of their behaviour. We also know Nazi doctors had classical music playing while executing their terrible experiments. My personal feeling is that we should make classical music again become an important, ideally an indispensable, part of our communal life. Obviously we cannot quite reach the status of classical music in the 19th century, where it was the central social event, but we can at least refer back to not-so-distant past. For instance, back in 1989, when the uprising started in Eastern Germany and there was a real fear of the Eastern German government employing military force against people on the street, it was Kurt Masur who made the Gewandhaus the place of peaceful discussions — he agreed with the government and authorities that there would be no weapons used. So music can become the “territory of peace” even at times of war. The main ability of music is to establish a non-verbal communication between people and make them forget, for a while, their day-to-day existence in favour of higher realms of beauty and truth which music is able to communicate.

My main aim is to show to people that (classical musicians) can be an important part of this society, but we cannot expect people to come to us, we have to go out. That’s the difference today. We have to compete on so many levels, with social media and various types of mechanical reproduction of music; musicians who create live music have to make their — our — concerts indispensable events, and one of the ways to attract audiences is pulling their attention at certain aspects of our life and society, which are not directly related to music but have a universal impact on the entire life. One of those aspects is nature; the idea to make a whole season dedicated to nature is because it is something that concerns us all, none of all can exist in this world without nature intact and functioning. Because there is so much music inspired by nature, why not try and inspire more people to be more conscious and more active in protecting the environment through the classical form?

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Photo: (c) Roman Gontcharov

Your new partner in Munich, Serge Dorny, said in an interview recently that “we cannot simply experience the Arts as goods to be consumed. The Arts should oblige people to think and ask questions and maybe fundamentally change people’s perceptions. It doesn’t mean we give answers but I hope the way you emerge from a performance has made a difference to your life and that it has changed your perception.”  To my mind, that complements something Graham Vick said at the International Opera Forum in Madrid, that perceptions have to be actualized in practises, productions, and operations.

I agree in principal with Serge, and I have always been saying the same thing. I’m against the consumption of the art; I’m for the active co-involvement of the audience, because obviously that’s how I’ve been raised myself. When listening to a concert, I participate actively via listening, feeling, and thinking. And I like Graham Vick’s work a lot – I’ve done a lot of opera with him, and I completely share his political and social views on these things. I think there’s a lot we can do if we stop seeing only the entertainment side of art. Of course there has to be the entertainment there somewhere, and there has to be a lot of beauty in what with do, but if it’s only about beauty, and nothing about the truth of life, then I think there is no real way forwards.

You said in an interview last year that you hope to inspire people to think for themselves, outside of a herd mentality,away from a knee-jerk reaction. That feels as if it’s reflected in your programming at both at the RSB and the LPO.

I think it’s always two sides: one thing is thinking for yourself, the other is feeling for yourself. That means not coming to a concert with a programmed expectation of an ecstasy at the end. You don’t know what it is — let yourself be surprised, and maybe even shocked! I think there is a real deficit of real emotion nowadays. We are dealing with so much surrogate emotion, and surrogate feeling in day-to-day life, and particularly in the mass media; it’s highly important to provoke real feelings. I was speaking earlier today with Dmitri Tcherniakov, and he said, “You know, it’s an exhilarating feeling when I bring to a whole audience of 2000 people an opera score they haven’t heard before.” He was referring to Rimsky-Korsakov’s La Fille de neige which he did recently in Paris, and is still an unknown piece in France and many other countries. That’s what I am hoping I can continue so long as I am actively involved in musical life, be it in concerts now in Berlin, London, or Moscow  — or future opera in Munich: I can surprise people and also be surprised myself.

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The exterior of the Bavarian State Opera, Munich. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

There was so much hand-wringing over the retirement of the Schenk production of Die Rosenkavalier in Munich. It’s as if people have already made their minds up about the version you’ll be doing with Barry Kosky in 2020.

Yes, but it’s always been like this. It’s still like this with the classical ballet, in fact it’s much worse in the blogs. I know that because my daughter always tells me how frustrating she finds reading those classical ballet blogs; people don’t want any innovation at all, they don’t want any new reading of Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake because it would insult the gods somehow.

“I want elephants in my Aida!”

Yes! But to be fair, I also have been through this myself, because as a kid, I used to go into the Stanislavsky Theatre where my dad was conducting, and since the age of six would watch the Eugene Onegin production by Konstantin Stanislavsky from, believe it or not, 1922. So the year I was born, this production had celebrated its 50th birthday already; by the time I came to watching the production it was already approaching 60… I loved that production. It was also the only one I knew of Onegin. I watched it again on DVD (as an adult), a filming of this same later performance from the 1990s, and I couldn’t watch without a smile, even where a smile was not very appropriate, simply because it suddenly felt so dated. I think it is the nature of theatre: the innovation becomes tradition and then gets old-fashioned. If we were to look at the great theatre productions of, say, Vsevolod Meyerhold or Max Reinhardt, or Giorgio Strehler or Luca Ronconi — great revolutionaries of their time — most probably we would find their productions hopelessly dated today because they were very much products of their time. It’s a natural process and one has to endure a certain amount of moaning and criticism from people who don’t want to see anything else; eventually they get used to it.

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A scene from the Lev Dodin production of Pique Dame. (Photo: @Elisa Haberer, Opéra national de Paris, 2011-2012 season)

I remember when I conducted a staging of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame by (director) Lev Dodin in Paris in 1999, and we were booed every night, every single night, at the Bastille. Two years later, we revived it, and there was no booing… and then this production became a fashion. Now people will be moaning if they decide to stop the production.

New theatre has to offend, insult and shock, then the audience — and critics — gets used to it and eventually becomes so dependent that would not want to see anything else — that’s how it usually happens. So letting go of old theatre productions is more or less like accepting the sad truth that your older relatives, however much you love them, will age and die one day because it’s a universal law. One grows to accept those things.

But I think it’s hard for new and younger audiences. I asked my students what they think of when I play opera documentaries, and it’s always, “Wigs! Corsets! Big dresses!” That’s the automatic association with opera. 

Every process of innovation takes time, but for me it’s highly important that new audiences come to opera not just because they want to see elephants and camels in Aida, or the Kremlin, cossacks and the boyars’ dresses in Boris Godunov but in order to witness the human drama of two people falling in love in the middle of a war and thus becoming traitors of their people, or the struggle of a man at a peak of his power against his own conscience. (Boris Godunov) is about our times as well as about 1604, as it was about Pushkin’s time when he was writing it 1825, or Mussorgsky when he was writing the opera in 1869. Times change, but peoples’ characters don’t change. Do people come to Shakespeare only to see the Elizabethan costumes? I hope not.

How does locale influence this kind of approach? I would think Moscow-Berlin-London have really left their mark on you as an artist.

I am highly adaptable to various cultural habitats. Obviously the fact that I left my native country at 18 has contributed partly to this adaptability and the chosen profession and all the travelling which came with it made me even more of a cosmopolitan. I enjoy learning new languages and studying people and their cultural traditions in the countries where I have lived and worked today I could survive in almost any culture. I never prepare myself specifically for a new working situation; the only thing I study before I go to a new place is a little bit of the language and a little bit of the history. Then I simply wait for my first impressions of the place, of the new situation before I decide how to act further.

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Photo: (c) Simon Pauly

It’s very similar to performing in a new hall or theatre: you play a note or a musical phrase, and then you wait for the return of the sound, for the resonance and then you react accordingly… what I can offer to any new place is my artistic vision, which is roughly always the same, but many paths can lead to Rome as they say, so I am prepared to amend my path if I see there is a short cut. Munich will be different to Berlin, London and Moscow, and yet, you know, we’re all humans and we all love music and theatre — there is something we all have in common and we share.

Holy Spirit

One of the strangest things I overheard about the Pussy Riot verdict occurred recently when I was out with friends. An older woman at a nearby table was talking into her cellphone, eyes obscured by heavy tortoise shell glasses.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said not-so-softly, tilting straw hat ever so slightly toward the blazing sun, “you can’t just go around saying any goddam thing you like anytime , any place you like. They should’ve known better, those girls.”

They should have known better. The words echoed and bounced around in my head as the gin and tonic glinted in the the afternoon sunshine. Should the members of Pussy Riot -Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Ekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alekhina, 24 -stayed quiet? Writer Lynn Crosie recently observed that the girls’ actions were “hideous” to have happened in a church. Watching the video for their new single, it’s not difficult to see how they offended traditional, church-going sensibilities. The elderly nuns look perplexed and more than a bit pissed off by these pesky masked aerobi-dancing young women. But the protest did not involve any swear words or cussing, nor did it use a holy name in any obscene way; it lasted less than a minute and invoked a religious figure, in a sincere request for delivery from a perceived (if very real, to every day Russians) evil. The hypocrisy of the trial and obscene harshness of the sentence are all out of proportion to the actual crime, but Pussy Riot have become an international cause celebre in the process.

The whole affair points to a fetid underbelly of the ruling Russian politburo worthy of deeper investigation and exploration. The name “Anna Politkovskaya” floats somehow, ghostly, above all of this. But what’s been heartening lately has been the outpouring of sincere support from various outspoken celebrities, including the holy (and wholly inspiring, to my mind) triumvirate of artsy female greatness; Madonna, Bjork, and Patti Smith have let it be publicly known they stand with the three members of Pussy Riot. Madonna donned a mask and wrote the band’s name in marker on her own body during a concert in Oslo; Bjork did a manic live dance with a bevy of female chorister-musicians, shrieking in her signature banshee-like howl above the din. It was a beautiful, if perfect echo of Pussy Riot’s own protest in one of Russia’s holiest sites.

“Jesus Christ would fucking forgive them!” roared Smith at recent concert in Stockholm. One senses she’s right. Surely Jesus would smile at the ballsy, youthful vigor of it all. It’s surreal, the protest -tacky, surreal, unsettling, gormless, and… young. That brave, outrageous, ballsy stuff we do when we’re young translates into the stuff we awkwardly admire from the comfortable distance of gap-toothed time and fat adulthood. We may not do it again… but damn, we want to.

The childlike sincerity of Pussy Riot’s protest dances with a childish desire to shock, which isn’t so childish if you know the admittedly scary politics of Putin’s Russia. It’s as if the rioters, in using the slang for female genitalia so boldly, and doing their funky young-wooman-goddess-thing in a Christian environ, are asking people to stop and think where true power lies in 2012 Russia, and where it should lie; they’re daring people to stop, to think, to choose, and to reconsider. As Crosbie wisely notes, “the word “pussy” has been on everyone’s lips for weeks. It’s hard to imagine a more simple and more complex way of disseminating the blunt, beautiful nature of the girls’ mission.” Those colorful masked figures are 2012’s gangly, Gaia-like, guitar-slinging Teletubbies, Mother Russia’s monstrous, balaclava’d court jesters, pointing up the ridiculous nudity of Sovereign, State, and Society. All we can do, us boring grown-up women, is stand and smile as they call upon the Saint for delivery, mouths open, eyes wide, inspired by the bravery of youth and the beautiful danger of pussy power in holy houses made flesh and blood.

Jesus would forgive them – even if they knew better, but most especially if they didn’t.

(Photo credits: Pussy Riot members [top] from Pitchfork.com; Madonna photo from nme.com; Pussy Riot [bottom] by Igor Mukhin.)

Are You Not Entertained?

Inspiration has been hard to come by in these late November days. The greyness is thick, endless, unrelenting and unmoving, smug in its stifling tofu blandness. New tires spin aimlessly on a car that’s been flipped upside down and left to rot. Nothing goes forwards fast enough, if at all. To borrow from Beckett, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes… it’s awful.” No kidding.

The bright spot -and it’s a weird bright spot -has been politics, specifically American politics. The race to the 2012 Presidential elections has been spectacularly theatrical, the personalities and behaviors ribald and riveting. Meltdowns! Mistresses! Racist rocks! Rocking racists! Bumps! Stumps! Ooops! Loop-de-loops! Since living in the United States, I just can’t get enough of its mad, bad, dangerous-to-know, good/bad/ugly aesthetic. An American-born, Canadian-living friend told me she thinks of America as bacon: it’s greasy, delicious, bad for you and good for your tastebuds. It’s addictive, unhealthy, and even the smell of it is enough to convince you that you need it. Without it, so many other things would just be boring, grey… depressingly bland. November forever. Ugh.
Yet it’s anything but bland in the world of Twitter. At every GOP debate, the microblogging site has resembled a hummingbird on meth: observations, opinions, fact checks, exchanges and retweets come at breakneck speed, with nary a moment to think twice. I’ve partaken and tried to keep up, @ing one person, RTing another, the new linguistics of a modern communication long and comfortably entrenched into my 21st century vernacular. More than an education, my enthusiasm for the spectacle of American politics has opened a door to connecting with some smart, witty, talented people, using a technology I couldn’t have guessed at ten years ago. Perhaps that’s the magic.
The sense of event-with-a-capital-E combined with all the elements of theater implies a shared love of real-life drama that in no way diminishes the seriousness of what’s being discussed. Online users are like critics’ unions, decimating, disassembling, disabusing and discarding, while offering credit where it’s due. But unlike theater-theater, political theater is a forum where the off-stage antics of its players are every bit as vital -in a theatrical sense -as their onstage performance. While some larger networks utilize the commentary of silly tweeters in far to serious a manner, it’s worth remembering that there are many credible, smart tweeters whose 140-character commentary blasts open new neural pathways, not to mention super-bright highways, along the freeway of 21st century American political life.
As if to match the velocity on that road, I find myself zooming by old interests. Trips to the art gallery replace the theater; the lecture hall goes before the symphony hall; the arena sits in lieu the club. Much as a reflection of my age, it’s a reflection of shifting routes in those neural pathways (though I should add, I still love the theater and the symphony).
But the combination of politics and tweeting has brought out a childlike sense of play, something long missing amidst the grey November days.
During a recent GOP debate that I began exchanging theatrical-esque theories on roles for candidates, especially within a (not altogether unsuitable) high school setting. My talented companion and I decided Rick Perry would be the boisterous gym coach who urges you to run faster even though your lungs are ready to explode, Jon Hunstman, the possibly-swoon-worthy English teacher who, by tossing off an insulting comment about your favorite poet, turns you off for life. Herman Cain would be the ever-frustrated business teacher who puts his hands on his head when the class gets too loud, while Newt Gingrich is the perpetually sour-faced math teacher who gives you a yelling-at whenever you ask too many seemingly-dumb questions. Michelle Bachmann would be the history teacher who’d assign you an essay and write you another one back if she didn’t like what you wrote. Rick Santorum would be the science teacher who’d argue with his own students, Ron Paul the classics teacher who’d go off on hour-long tangents and entertain student ideas about smoking in the caf.
Theater. Imagination. Possibility. Politics.
More, please. I love my bacon, and I’m not prepared to live without it.
Not now, or ever.

Crashed

First, the obvious: I’m not accepting being away from New York. I vacillate between despair and hope with a dizzying rapidity. That doesn’t mean I’m not taking pleasure in small things here: I’m riding my bike to a local job, and the sight of a cardinal-couple flitting around the greenry of a garden is quite lovely. Easy access to a BBQ, a terrace, and a posturpedic bed are excellent. But here is not New York. And I miss the stinky, hot, frustrating massive mess of it all. To say I’m sad I left behind my life there would be a gross understatement; I want late tequila nights and prosecco-filled afternoons and fragrant green-chili early evenings and blinding rooftop July 4ths and the busy buzzy ball-breaking brilliance of Times Square at 2am. Becoming accustomed to isolation and inertia … is not an option.

It’s taken me a while to get back to writing, but return I have, however haltingly. I’ve been ruminating all week on what to write about the London riots. It’s one of my favorite cities, and indeed, was one I called home between 1999-2000. Russell Brand’s intensely smart, well-written essay for the Guardian expressed a lot of important things, and Dave Bidini’s similarly-insightful piece for the National Post has created new quadrants of thought in my exploration into the meaning of this whole affair on both personal and political levels. I”ll be posting a piece on the riots soon.
For now, musings on transportation, or more specifically, the Awfulness Of Buses And All They Represent. It was sad to wake up, refreshed and fuzzy-haired this Saturday morning, and to discover, amidst my deliciously unhealthy plateful of bacon and eggs, the truly tragic news of a crashed bus. According to Gothamist,

A Greyhound bus travelling from NYC to St. Louis overturned early this morning on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, injuring over two dozen people. One woman was briefly pinned underneath the bus, and at least 25 of the 29 passengers were injured; three of the injured were transported by air to nearby hospitals. According to Bill Capone, the Turnpike’s director of communications,”The bus overturned and we don’t know what caused it. According to the state police, no other vehicle was involved in the accident.”

I will never, ever forget my bus ride down to New York. I’d taken it many times in the past, as a much younger woman, but hadn’t done any long-haul travel on one until this past March. The trip through the dense, scary darkness of Upstate New York was made all the more frightening by lashing rain, strong winds, and, dauntingly, a bus driver who seemed to be trying out for the Grand Prix Monaco (or is that Montreal? Or Daytona, perhaps?). The whole “we-don’t-know-what-caused-it”-dance doesn’t fly after experiencing that kind of hair-rising ride. My heart was in my throat for much of the bumpy, noisy, rough overnight journey.

Amidst the terror, there were some fascinating observations to be made, especially around the people who chose to (/had to) use that mode of transport. The bus was filled with people of all ages, races, backgrounds, who busied themselves texting, reading, sorting through business cards, and making phone calls to loved ones, assuring them they’d “be there soon” and talking about their work days, an earlier job interview, asking after children, asking about neighbours and bills and entirely normal stuff. They struck me as hard-working, exhausted, and stuck in a system where economics forced them onto the cheapest route possible, safety be damned.
Is this is the price of a job in America 2011? I could help but think of that terrifying ride, with guts and nerves and blood churning in some sickening mix, as I read this morning’s sad report. Was it just a sad, simple accident, or a darker sign of troubled times? Again, Gothamist reports that “The westbound bus had stopped in Philadelphia and was to stop again in Pittsburgh when it overturned just after 6 a.m” -so it like the ones I took, was an overnight bus, perhaps full of people looking for work, going to work, visiting relatives, returning home. The basic horribleness of the American economy was one of the reasons I returned to Canada; job-seeking is impossible in a place where people are willing (/encouraged) to work for free just to avoid unemployment prejudice. The litany of recent bus accidents (tourist ones included) makes me wonder if they’re mere accidents or larger symbols of a changing America.
Struggle is an idea people think is noble -unless it happens to be you doing the struggling. Then it’s gross, and f*ck you if you ask for all the checks and balances to be made in order for you to stay healthy and productive. As Jon Stewart so aptly put it Thursday night, “Here’s the problem with entitlements: they’re only entitlements when they benefit other people.” Struggle is easy to label as “noble” and “brave” and “ballsy” when you’re not the one doing it. And struggle doesn’t change just because location might. America is changing, has changed, will continue to change -just like life itself. The wheels haven’t come off, but I’d recommend careful driving. The road ahead is slippery. Sometimes slower is better.
Photo credits:
Greyhound photo (middle), QMI File Photo.
Top and bottom photos taken from my Flickr Photostream.

Killer

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords this past weekend was a shock and yet, was weirdly unsurprising. There’s been a huge gulf forming -and festering -politically in North America for some time, a divide fomented by the self-interested, the greedy, the ignorant, and the selfish. Division is being emphasized more than similarity, individual voices more than one harmonious sound. A few pop culture references came to mind amidst the myriad of news reports, blame assignation, finger -pointing, and distressing web scrubbing. “I hope the Russians love their children too,” sang Sting during the 80s Cold War hysteria. “We’re one but we’re not the same; we got to carry each other,” sang Bono in 1991, months after the Berlin Wall fell. Together, these words, from the world of fluffy, seemingly-innocuous popular culture, carry a powerful idea: people have the capacity to recognize a shared inner humanity, even if there are outward differences. We don’t have to get hung up on those differences, but we do have to respect them and work (sometimes hard) to remember that hatred is hatred, no matter which perceived “side” spews it -or worse, acts on it.

Maintaining grace in the face of the horrendous violence as seen in Arizona recently is wholly difficult, if not seemingly-impossible. We feel anger, the need to blame, the responsibility to call to account, to mete out judgment, to avenge, all in an effort to heal to make sense, to, in our minds, “set things right” and deal with not just our pain, but the pain of an entire nation. We think we have the answers individually or within our shared-worldview groups. This self-righteousness is dangerous. The motives behind the actions of the alleged shooter may not be clear, no matter what a Myspace / YouTube page may imply. I wonder what the online pages of other would-be assassin in history might look like; would Squeaky Fromme‘s site have music, photos of she and Charlie, a “donate” button? Would John Wilkes Booth have a Twitter stream full of political vitriol and shout-outs to theatre companies? what about Lee Harvey Oswald? (Actually, his page would be probably blocked by the CIA. But a “I’m a PATSY! Why won’t anyone listen to me? Come ON!” status update isn’t too hard to imagine.) We can all probably guess who might be running his very own Jodi Foster fan site.

These are just some of the characters who populate Stephen Sondheim’s dark (and strangely timely) 1990 work Assassins. The work is a keen examination of the drive for fame, notoriety, and revenge, and speaks to the contemporary need for heroes and villains, even when the portrait is never accurate, especially when done in the heat of the moment. These are characters, who, for all their infamy, are remarkably like… us: they blame, they rage, they feel wronged and ignored. They’re self-righteous, deluded, needy, the ultimate outsider moving on the inside of some movement or psychosis (or both). And they want more. Always more -more justice, more retribution, more notoriety, more attention, more people-listen-up-cause-you-know-I’m-right-yo. More everything.

Actor Paul McQuillan plays John Wilkes Booth in the current remount of the Birdland Theatre Production in Toronto. The erudite artist offered his own thoughts on the work, and how his own longtime yoga practise has influenced and shaped his approach to acting -and to playing a killer.

Tell me a bit about your role in Assassins.

John Wilkes Booth was a failed actor from a high-class family with passionate (inarguably extreme) political views. I suppose nothing could have been more gratifying to his narcissistic essence than to cast himself in the biggest role of his uncelebrated career and, at the same time, give his radical/racist views an undeserved spotlight. So, he killed the president…in the theatre. “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?

How do you see this year’s production being different from last year’s?

It is a great opportunity as an artist to explore a complex piece of work (Assassins surely gets that distinction) further, after fully letting it go. Sadly, it reminds me of the incredible insights we often have regarding a failed relationship long after it is over, except in this case, you’re being given full permission to freely jump back in and learn from your misgivings. I have had endless conversations with other actors who are in the final week of a run and -in the middle of a line -finally understand what is coming out their mouths. It’s usually a moment that carries epiphany-like joy and paralyzing regret. “That’s it. That’s it!!!” followed by, “How did I not discover this in rehearsals? S.T.U.P.I.D!!” I have already had many of those moments…and I’m just talking about TODAY!

How do you see this show being a commentary on contemporary politics?

It is always a testament to the credibility of any theatre piece if it can transcend time and its many restrictions theatrically. What might be deemed a potent piece of work ten years ago, can seem dull and dated today. Even period-piece musicals can seem tastelessly ineffective unless given an updated spin. A musical such as Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is a good example. If left as originally written, it appears quite misogynistic, in my opinion.

Luckily, Sondheims’s Assassins tends to pay more respect to social themes than fleeting fads, therefore making the work timeless. Certainly, Assassins has no respect for the restrictions of time and I believe that is one of its clever qualities. We see that the issues of people in Abraham Lincoln’s day can easily be compared to socio-political issues of Kennedy’s era.

On another note, politics has always been the equivalent of a reality show, constantly morphing to the insatiable needs of the viewer/voter. Politics has yet to find a perfect balance for the people and countries it aims to subdue or entice. I heard Marianne Williamson say recently, “communism glorifies the collective at the expense of the individual and capitalism glorifies the individual at the expense of the collective.” Finding that balance can create many casualties in ANY time period. The arguments of John Wilkes Booth against the presidency of Abraham Lincoln are not much different than that of the certain parties speaking against Barack Obama. Politics will always manifest social unrest. How that social unrest is manifested is on full display in this musical for two hours, eight times a week.

Your character is based on an historical figure -is that strange to play? Does it create a certain kind of pressure?

If John Wilkes Booth had been caught assassinating Abraham Lincoln on Youtube, I would definitely feel a certain pressure to capture his esthetic subtleties and personal mannerisms. Luckily, there were no cell-phone cameras in 1865 and I feel as though I can freely give him my own spin. I think people are more attached to the incredible mark he made with the actual act of assassinating Lincoln than anything else.

How difficult is it to balance singing, dancing, and acting?

In the past I have often heard people criticize music-theatre performers. This always seems ridiculous to me because I have never been more impressed than when I have witnessed an actor capture the authenticity and complexity of a character in song and dance. It’s also very effective dramatically. The flip side of this is that it also makes tackling these roles extremely daunting and the challenges pile up quicker than streetcars in a snowstorm.

So yes, it is quite difficult to balance these disciplines in one show. But if done well, the payoff is that much greater.

Where do you think this work fits within Sondheim’s canon? It isn’t as well-known as some of his other works.

I was on Broadway with a show called The Buddy Holly Story when Assassins was originally being planned to open but it was delayed because of The Gulf War in 1990. I remember the buzz being that it would have been a highly insensitive piece of work to introduce during that time. They got scared and pulled it. There were just 13 shows running on Broadway that year and most of them were light fare.

I think Assassins is more potent and daring in its views than any of Sondheim’s work, and for that reason, it is probably done less. It’s pretty in-your-face with its message and that kind of tactic can make people stay away today, sadly. The mindless jukebox musicals seem to have a bigger draw these days, but like I said earlier, reality television has also taken over the airwaves. People don’t want to think anymore when they go to the theatre and at the risk of sounding crass, that offends me. Theatre can be a mirror to the soul or it can be a mirror used to put on lipstick.

How has your yoga practice influenced the way you approach your stage work, particularly in this role?

When I practice yoga, I do my best to focus internally. You find out what is going on inside. It is no different with inhabiting the psyche of any character. There is a lot of observation without judgment or attachment. I don’t really know what method acting means because I think it misses the point. There has to be a certain amount of separation from a character as demented and troubled as Booth or I would be in a straight jacket at the end of the show. I can capture the essence of that feeling without actually occupying it and letting it take me over.

Production photos by Guntar Kravis.

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