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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Artsy

I feel like a kind of “us versus them” war is happening in Toronto right now -between people who lives in different regions, who engage in different social activities, who are interested in different things. Can’t we all just get along?

Look! Hear! is a monthly cultural event that happens in the city; its last one, November 30th, was held in the historic Distillery District. The next one happens tomorrow night, in the very-same, neato spot. In the words of the people organizing Look! Hear!, it aims to promote “some of the most exciting and up and coming artists and musicians Toronto has to offer, in the unique and raw space that is the Stirling Room Catacombs.” It closes with a live art auction at midnight.

Art? Catacombs? Auction? Cool! Or at least I think so; unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend November 30th but I definitely plan on following this group. I learned about it through artist Chris Pemberton, whom I interviewed as one of the co-founders of the immensely popular Art Battle. Chris is a great artist in his own right, as the photos here attest; they’re from his super summer exhibition at the Gladstone Hotel.

Now, there are a lot of people in the city who are taking the “us vs them” approach, specifically within the political sphere as a direct result of November’s mayoral race. Chris feels like one of those people who’s trying to break that barrier; would one group of people make it to the Gladstone Hotel, or Look! Hear! if they knew about it? Does that make the groups of people who do go to such venues and events x or y (or *gasp* z)? Should any of that matter when it comes to art? Questions worth debating at any time, in any place. My exchange with Chris demonstrates the heart of connection that lies within the kind of art I like best.

How does your work fit in with the other arts happening at Look! Hear! ?

Look Hear is a special event. Elements such as visual and sound arts are combined to bring an awareness to the space for the evening. I’ve done my best to offer paintings that represent my vision and passion, and let the curator design the rest. Should it fit? Most of the time, yes. Sometimes, if done with care, disjunction is beautiful too.

What does this kind of one-night event give you, as a working artist, in both the short and long-terms?

In the short term it gives the opportunity to share my ideas with a focused community. A special event like Look! Hear! brings people together to be a part of one night, and the enthusiasm becomes a tangible part of experience and the experience of my art. In the long term, it’s an opportunity to connect with the ideas of other people, and to inform my future work or creative process, which is my living process also.

Why do you think it’s a vital event for local artists in the city?

Every artistic element at Look! Hear! is being offered as a best effort in a beautiful venue, produced by a great team. It’s the type of event that supports and creates as it becomes real. I’ve worked with (producer/curator) Morgan Booth on other projects; she has a knack for success and is delightful to work with. I believe Morgan got the artists she wanted, Sarah Eagen and Andrew Dunn Clarke have really impressed me, it’s exciting to show work together.

How does it work with your role as a co-founder of Art Battle?

I’ve really felt a sense of community involvement since we started Art Battle. We’ve met so many passionate and innovative people, it’s inspiring me to maintain my own voice. There’s a lot of work in between shows, whether that’s an Art Battle or an exhibit, it’s important to maintain confidence and creativity. Working and communicating with people who share the same efforts and excitement is how it works. It’s a great fit.

Your exhibit at the Gladstone had a lot of blues and oranges, & was very textural -how long did it take you to find your ‘voice’ artistically? How much is that an ongoing process?

It’s definitely an ongoing process, but if you are true to yourself and what you want to express, the work will always be true, although the voice changes tone over time. My paintings are the paintings that I want to live with -that is my guide.

How do you think events like Look! Hear! & Art Battle foster the culture of a city?

The culture of Toronto will be as rich as we make it. Events like Look Hear and Art Battle bring attention, experience and inspiration to the arts community and beyond. I believe culture is in constant motion, some things take longer to change, some times things shift quickly. The arts often tells us where we have been, sometimes tells us where we are, and occasionally where we are going. I hope that excitement and the connection of good people is where we are going. That’s the culture I want to be a part of.

Healing

Music has played a large role in my life lately. In the weeks leading up to the Grinderman show last week, I interviewed Laila Biali, Micah Barnes, and James Di Salvio (Bran Van 3000) about their respective new releases, received the new album from the fabulously-rockin’ Preachers Son, and have been diving headfirst into the work of recently-deceased composer Henryk Gorecki. I’m also been looking into attending more live shows, trying to get more familiar with the massive Sondheim catalogue, and preparing for the Einsturzende Neubaten concerts here in Toronto next month.

Amidst all of this, the gorgeous, babbling trumpet of Hugh Masekela has been reigning like some supreme being, dancing and swirling with magical silvery notes and the soft-sheen of hand-claps and rising voices. Masekela’s music is rich but spacious at the same time, and he gives a show like no other; his warm smile and funky dance moves leaves a trail of inspiration, and I think I can say with some confidence now that seeing him here a few weeks back marked the beginning of my musical renaissance of late.

It was a miserable Saturday night when Masekela came to Toronto to complete his latest North American tour. Cold rain fell hard and noisy across the concrete slabs and high scaffolding dotting the city-scape. Crowds huddled together under the tiny awnings outside restaurants and shops, barely daring the wind and the wet, and I arrived at Koerner Hall with pant legs soaked and in a slightly chilly mood. The new space put me somewhat at ease, though. The architecture is so… pretty, all glass angles and soft colours and grand open spaces. The hall has been creatively fused with the rambling old architecture of the old Royal Conservatory building, a place I shuddered to enter as a child.

It was in the fusty old Conservatory building that I would take my dreaded yearly piano exams, and it’s there I have an ashen collection of singed musical memories. Between the glaring, smile-adverse examiners, the creaky floors, the yellowed keys of ancient pianos, and the sheer terror of waiting outside a closed door as piano-playing way, way better than mine emanated from within, it’s a spot I was convinced I’d always despise. It’s no exaggeration to state that the Conservatory system pounded out whatever sonic creativity I had in favour of more rigorous, “proper” sounds. Stop fooling around, play what’s in front of you, technique over emotion, no improvising allowed, ever. Don’t do that to Bach/Beethoven/unheard-of-people-I-didn’t-give-a-toss-about-anyway! Hardly worth mentioning: I don’t play the piano anymore.

The building itself, which I remember as a fusty, cold, old space, has been fused with something warmly modern and welcoming; the regal (if equally cozy) Koerner Hall has top acoustics, comfy seats, and a nice smattering of old instruments in the basement, museum-style. Along with featuring Masekela that particular night, the Hall also hosts classical concerts (duh) a well as local groups like the excellent Art of Time Ensemble. Next year’s lineup includes jazz, Indian sounds, and blues shows. That eclecticism is a great reflection of not only the city, but the approach the Royal Conservatory is now taking to shape the nature of cultural experience in the 21st century. It’s not all poe-faced, serious, miserable, head-down-and-shut-up-ness stuff. Gosh, I almost wish I was playing piano again. Almost.

So what to say about Masekela? The term “legendary musician” feels incredibly trite for someone so multi-talented. Human rights crusader, politician, artistic ambassador, showman, loverman… where to begin? With a mellow touch, of course. Hugh and his five-man band gave one of the most beautiful concerts I’ve ever seen. Liberally mixing old and new favorites, Masekela proved himself a master of many sounds and emotions, from the sexy growls of his famous trumpet to yowling imitations of a steam whistle, and even to his funky dancing, Masekela proved he’s a supreme entertainer and musician of the highest order.

With the accompaniment of a strong, intuitive five-man band, Masekela worked the crowd with a gentle wit and highly watchable style. He took the time to include Toronto in his roll-call of cities in “The Boy Is Doin’ It”, and chatted to the audience with much familiarity and warmth, easily blending humour and politics. Between quick comments on the rainy weather (which seemed, to my ears, to be a chide to the numerous latecomers) and amusing references to the G20 debacles of earlier this year (“I hope we’re safe here?”), Masekela appeal to the collective conscience of his spellbound audience, wondering aloud if the natural calamities of this year were the result of the Mother Nature taking revenge against an ignorant populace. He then spoke about the history of “Stimela (Steam Train)”, how it referenced South African coal mines, and how the numerous troubles of his home continent require the world’s attention.

“Stimela” is a powerful evocation of time, place, and circumstance, and its live version was a wholly moving blend of sound effects, native South African rhythms and … frankly, rock and roll. I couldn’t help but think of how much the middle instrumental section resembled various favorite rock tunes (especially favorite live tunes), and I marveled at this spry, funny, smart, accomplished 71-year-old for being able to channel so many different energies and styles simultaneously, via his innate, if finely-honed ability to integrate dance, voice, and presence.

But perhaps that’s the special magic of Hugh Masekela. The second half of the program was chalk-full of fun, upbeat numbers, which inspired much dancing of the onlookers in the cheapie seats, located directly behind the stage. There was something wholly encouraging about watching the skinny-tied/ironically-bearded/thick-framed-glasses hipster set sway, swivel, and shake to the earthy, sexy sounds of “Happy Mama” and the famous “Grazin’ in the Grass” (which he played at the 2010 FIFA World Cup). Music makes the people come together indeed. Masekela and his band acknowledged the dancers as well as the numerous audience members familiar with his numerous references to South African culture. During “Kauleza” Masekela instructed us to call back the song’s title (which translates to “Police!”), noting it was what he and his siblings would shout growing up in illegal drinking establishments. “You’re not shouting loud enough!” he chided, “The police are coming!” My favorite moment was during the legendary Fela Kuti song “Lady”, when Masekela imitated a haughty woman, shaking his hips, pursing his lips, cocking an eyebrow. It was a hilarious, playful blend of satire and musical mastery, and completely spellbinding.

Indeed, the whole evening seemed to be a balm to soothe my awful Conservatory memories. Musicality takes all kinds of forms, of course, but it’s hard to flush bad energies away in one go. Attending Masekela’s concert in my old horror-movie stomping grounds felt like a good first step toward creative musical rehab. 2011 could be the year of Koerner Hall, both for me and many others seeking the kind of inspiration -and liberation -only music can provide.

Photo credits:
Top photo of Hugh Masekela originally published in The Telegraph.
Second photo of Hugh Masekela courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors.

Making Docs Hot


I have a little movie confession to make: Hot Docs is my favourite film festival. Sorry, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), don’t get jealous. The problem with TIFF is, despite its marquee appeal and oodles of excellent, beautiful content, it still feels chalk-full of sparkly, starry hype; it’s like putting ten cans of frosting on one cake. I kind of like cakes on their own, actually, with a nice cup of tea. And Hot Docs (running April 29th to May 9th) is just that.

There’s also a certain timeliness to the Hot Docs works that come to Toronto every spring. For instance, the documentary coming to Hot Docs about assassinated Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto, has a true resonance, especially as the country is rapidly becoming a fixture on the nightly news, and there is more coverage than ever -even give years ago -with a diverse array of topics on Pakistan, including (incredibly) fashion. The film, Bhutto, by filmmakers Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara, had its world premiere in the U.S. Documentary Feature competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and is making it Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs May 1st.

On to another kind of powerful woman: the one who serves you food. Dish: Women, Waitressing, and the Art Of Service, by Maya Gallus, explores the world of the female-dominated service industry. The full spectrum of the waitressing experience is documented, with the film moving from gritty truck stops to “sexy restos” and even Tokyo maid cafes. Gallus recently won a Gemini Award for Best Direction In A Documentary for her feature-length film, Girl Inside, which premiered at Hot Docs and launched the 2007 season of The View From Here on TVO. Her film Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality premiered at TIFF in 1997 and was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary. This interest in female stories makes me think Dish is going to be less dishy and more dramatic, in that good, involving, I-want-another-plate way.

Now, having served, and danced, and even done some mad combinations of the two (oh, those wild Dublin pub nights), the screening of A Drummer’s Dream intrigues, for its dance-y possibilities. The beat of not food but skins sits at the heart of this NFB work, written, produced, and directed by Canadian John Walker. Drummers who’ve kept the beat for Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Carlos Santana share their knowledge with forty students during a week-long retreat in the Canadian wilderness The film features the talents of celebrated drummers Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio “El-Negro” Hernadez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow, and looks like big ole’ noisy celebration. I would imagine this is one of those inspiring stories that makes one want to shimmy up the aisle exiting the theatre. Or start banging on pint glasses with a spoon.

Lots more Hot Docs coverage in the weeks leading up to the fest’s kick off on April 29th. Stay tuned. And TIFF? Stop pouting. You have plenty of time to make it up to me before September rolls around. Get busy on that cake.

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