Tag: remembrance

Socialist Laments: Exploring Mourning Music Of The GDR

Dresden, ruins, bombing, WW2, WWII, Germany, history, mourning

The ruins of Dresden at the end of the Second World War. Photo: Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7937338

One of the more engaging works I’ve read this summer concerns a seemingly-crusty topic, albeit with a very soft core: the music of the GDR (or German Democratic Republic), specifically mourning music, and the ways in which that music and its composers are remembered – or not. Founded in 1949 and dissolved in 1990, East Germany is, at least in the some quarters, very often associated with cartoonish images, frequently manifest in the form of glowering villains in grey suits and/or leather coats, breezily presented in Western popular media throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even into the 1990s. At the other end of the spectrum, the rising tide of ostalgie has made it equally hard to gain a proper picture, with the GDR’s more unsavoury elements glossed over in the name of sentimentality. Having an interest in GDR-born composers myself (Georg Katzer (1935-2019) and Paul Dessau (1894-1979) among them), it seemed like some form of fate to come across Martha Sprigge’s Socialist Laments; Musical Mourning in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford University Press, 2021) earlier this summer. Surveying various aspects of musical expression in post-WWII Germany (theoretical, practical, political, social, historical) and their intersections, Sprigge, who is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, presents a fascinating portrait of specific creative expression, and its performative manifestations, amidst the time before, during, and after (however briefly) the time of the Berlin Wall. It paints a multilayered portrait of a time, place, and people that is at once difficult and diffuse, but just as equally heart-rending and human. Also, rather refreshingly, the book comes with its very own playlist, complete with performance suggestions, in its opening pages.

Organized not solely via strict historical chronology (the end of the Second World War and onwards through the socialist era), Socialist Laments is driven by memory – its perceptions, presentations, manifestations, and, by the actual act of remembering itself: the meaning, in micro and macro ways, in post-war, post-communist, and ever-creative senses. The idea of ruin, literal as much as figurative, casts a defining shadow throughout the book, past its opening explorations of the bombing of Dresden and related figures whose works had resonance in post-war times (among them choral conductor/composer Rudolf Mauersberger and his Dresdner Requiem from 1961), concentration camp memorials (including Tilo Medek’s controversial Kindermesse zum Gedenken der im Dritten Reich ermordeten Kinder / In Memory of of the Children Murdered in the Third Reich, 1974), Soviet influence (the apparent appropriation of the Russian funerary hymn “Immortal Victims” being but one example), the role and continuing function of the Kreuzchor in religious and cultural life, as well as anti-fascist expressions of the 1960s and 1970s, with reference made to the works of Dessau and Katzer among others – many of whom, as Sprigge notes, “often had memories of the wartime years that presented direct conflicts with the country’s official narratives.”

Sprigge opens the book with a remembrance of her visit with the widow of composer Reiner Bredemeyer (1929-1995), who had the names of her husband’s compositions carved into his gravestone, which is situated at Pankow III along with a number of celebrated German cultural figures, singer/actor Ernst Busch (1900–1980) and conductor Kurt Sanderling (19192-2011) among them. Understanding the place of Bredemeyer, and his GDR colleagues, in the wider spectrum of the GDR’s music world is less about convenient placement of puzzle pieces that might fit current post-reunification narratives, and far more about experimentation with new ingredients in a varied stew; you may not entirely recognize the end result, but you will understand, nay appreciate, the level of creativity and labour that went into its creation. Thus is the Freudian conception of Trauerarbeit (or work of mourning) manifest in ways that move beyond simple sentimental and/or melancholy definitions, and into a more varied, thought-provoking, and nuanced take on German cultural history and its contemporary echoes, or a distinct lack thereof. How often do we hear the works of Dessau, Bredemeyer, Biermann, Dessau, Katzer, after all? With incredible attention to detail, a scholarly approach to analyses, and a clear love of the composers and their respective works across 300+ pages, Socialist Laments underlines the importance of an ever-evolving history that deserves to be – quite literally – heard and experienced. Is it a kind of advocacy? Perhaps, and perhaps that’s overdue. The book, published in mid-2021, joins a growing body of literature which looks at the work of a multifaceted era, and its people, in ways that bust out the old, Western-influenced clichés of humorless, grey grimness and show the ways in which meaning, mourning, and moving on, helped shape not only late 20th century Germany but modern Europe. It’s worth keeping in mind as the music world slowly reopens amidst coronavirus restrictions, and, to use a hoary old term, “reimagines” itself; the composers of the GDR understood this act very well, and the classical music world now, and its fans, would do well to remember such expressions and perhaps ask more from organizations, programmers, and most especially, themselves.

Professor Sprigge and I spoke in early July 2021.

Martha Sprigge, Socialist Laments, GDR, music, history, politics, Germany, book, Deutschland, Oxford Music Press, German Democratic Republic, ostalgieWhy did you focus on mourning and the music associated with it? You outline some academic motivations in the book but I’m curious about personal instincts.

This is a great question that I love answering! As you mention, I give a more academic explanation in the intro to the book, but there are a few more experiential reasons for choosing the lens of mourning to approach East German music culture. Musically, I’ve had a slightly morbid fascination with mourning music for a while, possibly longer than I realized. When I first started working on this project I was chatting with an old friend from high school, who reminded me of the number of requiems and choral mourning works we sang in the choir we were both in growing up – she joked that I must have really taken those experiences to heart! I suspect my personal experience of singing and playing mourning music might not be all that unique; memorial customs are everywhere in Western art music customs, though we might not always consciously be paying attention to the relationship between a generic title – for example, Requiem, Epitaph, Elegy, or a dedication, (like Schumann’s piano piece “Remembrance,” which was written the day Mendelssohn died) and the mourning rituals that lie behind them when we listen to or play these pieces. But sometimes we are (consciously paying attention), and I wanted to explore these customs and their continued use in more depth, especially in 20th century Europe, or after WWI and WWII specifically), when both the musical languages and the subjects of mourning were dramatically transformed.

In terms of the historical time period, I was struck by the disconnect I felt when I first read/heard about the GDR in (admittedly Western) texts, compared to the emotional impact that many of the sites of the former GDR had when I first visited them (and in the time since). The texts seemed to present East Germany as incredibly restrictive, especially in terms of emotional expression, while the sites I visited were sites of so many insurmountable losses, from wartime monuments to former concentration camps, that would seem to prompt an emotional response. I thought that looking at music would be a way in to exploring the various tensions surrounding expression in East Germany, not least because commemorative practices – and music – were so central to the cultural life of the GDR.

So how did this project actually begin?

Around 2005-2006, you could take a history class about the 20th century, and you’d learn all this political stuff; then you’d take a music class about the 20th century, and you’d learn about these seemingly very detached things – but I realized, in taking them in university, that they are closer together than one might’ve thought they’d be. These elements of history are not just political, or apolicial, not strictly one thing, or another; there’s messiness there. And I like messiness.

How do you go about capturing aspects of that messiness, or did you feel you had to clean some of it up yourself?

I guess, I got into this topic through the music and related places, and so in that way, it comes through in my organization of the book, it’s like, places and music are interlinked, very much. I had started from that perspective of, “This music is interesting; these places are interesting” – they reveal all these multiple histories if you sit and pay attention, or walk and pay attention – and as I read more, I realized that there was something more to that than just me liking going on walks and listening to music; there’s something one can do if one takes a very site-specific approach to an historical topic that kind of mirrors a piece-specific approach to an individual work. I broadened it out from there.

Did you intend for the introduction to feature Bredemeyer’s widow, or did the idea come later?

That was after I met her. She is such a generous woman; we sat and talked for long periods of time. I was a grad student at the time, and I mean… who does that?! Who invites you into her home and lets you converse about this time period in such a way? I’m not even German! But that level of generosity stuck with me. And as I worked through this book and thought about what to do next, it occurred to me that this is a central part of the story; these women – it’s usually women – have spent years collecting their husbands’ works and figuring out what to do with them, they’re telling these specific histories in how they archive. So yes, I remember, I left that conversation and I did not actually know about Bredemeyer’s grave until I spent that time with her, after that, I went and found the grave the next day. In the first draft of everything ,which was my dissertation, this meeting with her was at the end, but as soon as I reworked the material into a book, I thought, “This meeting needs to go at the beginning, and it can broaden out from there.”

Such generosity points to a humanity that I think is very often ignored or taken for granted in the history of the GDR in terms of how the West thinks of it…

That’s very true.

… and that notion-busting extends to gender also. I love the observation you make about how gender parity under communism was every bit as performative as elements of commemoration; I wonder if there’s a companion book to be written on that topic.

Funnily enough, that’s what I’m hoping to do next!

Psychic powers!

Yes! There’s something about it though – and, the longer you stay in this particular world, the more ideas you get to write about. I think the music… the longer I stay in this field, the more I feel there’s a lot more that can be said, not just about composers who identify as women and how they navigated it all, but the much broader set of activities that took place to make the musical world work for them, and their partners, under that system.

That’s part of the nuance which is so palpable, along with the references to the Soviet Union. How challenging was it to navigate that element? I ask this as someone who interviewed Marina Frolova-Walker, whose work you also reference in your book.

That’s a good question – funnily enough, I read your interview with Marina this morning! Well, the Russian thing… I think especially now, Shostakovich is getting programmed significantly more often than most other Russian composers, especially the next generation – I mean, nobody’s running to tell you about Edison Denisov…

Some are

Sure, but there is a common frame of reference that a lot of Western audiences and musicological audiences have, and in some ways I could rely on the fact that the audience probably already know a fair amount, or have a fair amount of ideas, about the music of the Soviet Union, so I figured, with good footnotes and recognition, I could imply the realization that, “Yes, I know you want to know about Shostakovich right now, so here you go; here’s the formal reference” – but the other, thornier question, in terms of thinking about the field of musicology, or how people thought about artistic practise in the Cold War, for far too long… it was so very Soviet Union-focused. So some of what I was doing was building on the work of other scholars who have taken this very interesting era and explored how yes, the Soviet Union was hugely influential on East Germany, but the musical life there looked, and sounded, different. And that is significant.

Martha Sprigge, Professor, University of California, music, research, academe

Photo: Eric Isaacs

How much do you think the current interest is fuelled by “ostalgie”?

Oh for sure, a good chunk of it, there’s no question. I got into this field right around the time of the 20th to 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You’d go to these conferences (2010-2015) and there would be a certain generation of people saying, “Well I went to East Germany and it felt like this” and “I remember life was like that.” You know, this past week I came across a list of movies that were meant to help you understand the GDR but none of them were actually by East German film artists… so, I mean, people are intrigued by this era and place, because they have this idea of what East Germany was.

One that has been largely shaped by Western ideas, as you noted.

Yes, that’s right.

But the sense of nostalgia within Eastern cultural expression is also significant; the interplay between nostalgia and reality, sentimentality and authentic expression, seems especially relevant to contemporary programming. Why do you think the work of East German composers isn’t programmed more often? There was a production of Dessau’s opera Lanzelot (1969) in Erfurt and Weimar) in 2019, but that seemed unique. 

I think the reasons might’ve shifted – it was always multifaceted, why they were or weren’t heard. In the 1990s, there is ample evidence to indicate that yes, Western intellectuals took over former East German institutions for reasons which were based on completely discrediting Marxist thought; for a peek into that kind of world, Anna Saunders and Debbie Pinfold have this great book (Remembering And Rethinking the GDR, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013) demonstrating this sort of effect in various areas of the arts and culture and in universities, with some of the essays (“Reflective Nostalgia and Diasporic Memory: Composing East Germany After 1989“, Elaine Kelly) exploring the cultural atmosphere of the early 1990s in that vein. Bredemeyer himself commented on this issue as well; he said he felt like his works were being shaken off, that the perspectives this generation of composers had grown up with had suddenly been discredited. And, I think there’s this other dimension, which is more connected to new music writ large, and that is… it’s hard to get programmed. A lot of composers are continually and justifiably complaining about this or, if not complaining, aware that it is a system where only a few people get programmed again and again and again, and there is this broader movement which is not necessarily linked to the collapse of communism. Also, yes, the new music world is modelled on a world that is almost a century older now.

That makes generational divides all the more stark, and also brings up some very timely ideas around funding, especially in the post-Covid cultural landscape, or whatever we’re in now…

Which-Stage-Now-Covid…

How much did those elements – intergenerational, financial – come into play as you were researching and writing?

One of the things I realized I had to do at some point in this project, for my own sanity, and also to do justice to that messiness I referenced without making it a free-for-all, is that I had to focus on a certain generation that had come of age, or a couple of generations, that came of age during WWII and then came into the GDR as fully grown adults, versus those born during the war, and then those born in the GDR and after – I just don’t know enough about the more contemporary ones to comment. I’ve been tangentially following this third-generation group who were children when the GDR collapsed, or are first-generation and born in reunified Germany, but may well have parents from the East, and they’re adults now, doing various creative things – I just haven’t followed them as much. I think there is that dimension of how much people are holding onto stuff from the past, compared to how much those elements they think of with so much nostalgia have, in fact, morphed into totally different things. Like the element you mentioned about levels of state support – that’s also been fused into this whole idea of, ‘where do you go to get your works performed?’ – which I think is very valid right now. Europe seems to support musicians more than the U.S., for sure.

Indeed, and North Americans never get to hear the work of people like Bredemeyer or Dessau performed live as a result, because programming them is perceived as too risky. Do you think in our current pandemic era we might start to appreciate these artists, people who wrote through their own difficult times?

Possibly. I finished this book right as Covid started, which I wrote about in the intro, and I was thinking, “What on earth is going on? I have to finish this book!” So that opening chapter is colored by that whole initial experience, but throughout the book some of the examples I was working with made me think about motivation in multiple ways, and in slightly different ways – there’s this kind of potential therapeutic element of, “This is my response to this situation; this is what I do. I’m a musician: if something happens, I’m going to respond through music” – so I think it is possible that composers and audiences may turn back to, and look for, these moments of mourning in sound. There was this article at the beginning of the whole thing I saw, about music during the plague, the Renaissance, about it being repurposed and in thinking about that today, it’s possible that would happen now, but I can also imagine… I don’t know what format it would take, whether it would be a composer turning back to previous examples and pondering how that would help them work through things. Speaking for myself, I love work that changes the way I listen to and comprehend other music. To give you an example, I’m struck by Mauersberger’s turn to Schutz; at first my reaction was, “Well of course, it’s Dresden!” – I studied Schutz as an undergrad with a scholar of his work, but then I thought, “Hold on a second, Schutz and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); Schutz and all the religion issues” – there were lots of potential layers.

So yes, it would be really interesting and intriguing if audiences did turn back to music, maybe GDR music, and, this sounds twee, but to music that fully represents this current time of need. I can also see that taking different forms; for instance, Courtney Bryan recently had the premiere of her Requiem in Chicago, which was postponed from before this whole thing, but the work takes on a new meaning now. The form is still there, but musicians are adapting and making such works fit to the present, which seems very similar to what the composers I studied were doing.

Some may look at your askance for not being European and doing this; how much do you think being a kind of cultural outsider helped or hindered your writing and understanding?

I think there’s been so much attention and work and really rich stuff written about East Germany, and the arts in East Germany, over the past decade or so, so it’s not just one book everybody’s turning back to anymore, or one person; it’s not like, ‘if you read German then you definitely read this person; if you read English, you definitely read this person’ – no, it’s a bunch of people. There’s this rich, very engaging dialogue taking place now. So I don’t think I’d feel comfortable writing this if I wasn’t in dialogue with that larger community. We need both perspectives, from insiders and outsiders; it’s the only way to form something approaching a complete picture.

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Remembering Graham Vick, In His Own Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mille grazie, Graham, per tutto. x

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Things From 2017

sculpture nationalgalerie

At the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Before my most recent trip to Berlin for my birthday in earlier this month, I quickly jotted down a few music events that stood out to me without thinking too hard about the whys or wherefores. There have been so many special moments, and it’s hard to squish them into a list, let alone words and descriptions, and sometimes too much analysis not only muddles decent reflection but kills the joy of remembrance.

Many year-end “favorites” lists that show up this time of year tend to be steeped in memories and sentiment, and music is the best and most direct avenue to both. As music writer Tim Sommer points out in his own year-end feature, “no art form is as connected to our memory and our senses as music. Although music appears to exist primarily in just one of the senses, in fact it spreads to all of them, creating a connection with everything we were seeing, touching, smelling, and thinking.”

So much of my life is made up of lists — for packing, for groceries, for trips, and for stories to chase and features to finish. If I could write a list of feelings throughout the year the way I quickly wrote out my list of music experiences, how would it read? Disappointment might feature largely, but so would wonder. With a second near-solo Xmas Day under my belt, a lot of time has been spent in remembrance, on events recent and not, and on people new and old, near and far, present and not. In returning to my music list, muddling through the sometimes sticky waters of sentiment and memory, and ruminating on the ease of my choices, I’ve come to realize that wonder is the ribbon tying everything together. It’s a quality I fully realize can’t be forced, but can, perhaps, arise out of the right set of conditions. It logically follows then, that next year I hope to be writing this list from Europe. (You read that correctly.) Until then, please enjoy, and feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.

faust opera wallonie

The cast of “La damnation de Faust” take bows at the Opera Royal de Wallonie (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

1. La damnation de Faust, Opéra Royal de Wallonie; Liège, January.

Though I have loved the work of Berlioz for years, never have I heard it so vividly and lovingly brought to life as here, in the beautiful, ornate opera house of lovely Liège. American tenor Paul Groves, currently onstage at the Met in The Merry Widow (my interview with him here), turned his Faust strongly away from tormented-hero cliches and into something recognizably (and touchingly) human; his chemistry with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Mephistopheles was warm, watchable, and quietly splendid. (More here.) Together with Director Ruggero Raimondi’s thoughtful production and strong orchestral vision from Music Director Patrick Davin, this was one of the best ways to start the musical new year.

matrimonio lorraine

Lilian Farahani, Donato Di Stefano, and Anicio Zorzi Giustianini in “Il matrimonio segreto”. (Photo: Opera National de Lorraine)

2. Il matrimonio segreto, Opéra national de Lorraine; Nancy, February.

Conductor Sascha Goetzel led a vivacious reading of Cimarosa’s frothy and very Mozartean score (on the day of its 225th birthday, when I attended) in this fun production of the 1792 opera by Cordula Däuper in Nancy’s sumptuous opera house. Standouts included tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as the lovestruck Paulino, baritone Riccarado Novaro as seeming-fop Conte Robinson, and jovial baritone Donato Di Stefano as the bumbling Signor Geronimo. They, along with the entire cast, skillfully used Sophie du Vinage’s zany costumes and Ralph Zeger’s comical dollhouse sets to wondrous effect, embodying the very best sitcom stars with boundless energy and zesty, charismatic stage presences to match. This was “Three’s Company” 18th century style, complete with beautiful music and cartoon costumes — and it was fantastic.

Goerke Schager Wagner

Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Andreas Schager as Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Gotterdammerung.” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

3. Götterdämmerung, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, February.

Christine Goerke, who sang the role of Brünnhilde in this modern production, is one of the very great singers of our era, and you should run, not walk, if she’s performing in your town. This lady (my interview with her is here) understands, at a deep level, what makes Wagner  (and music) exciting, affecting, and fiercely human. If ever you’ve said ‘I don’t like Wagner” or “I don’t understand opera” or “Opera is boring,”  she is the person who will guide you to a place that may change your mind. This was her third turn in Toronto singing as part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and with each performance, including the one last winter, her Brünnhilde grew ever more alive and vivid. Goerke is truly a gifted vocalist and a great performer, and in this final instalment of the immense Ring Cycle, she infused every scene she was in with an earthy, robust presence. In a word: magic.

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The set of Willy Decker’s “La traviata” at the Met in New York. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

4. La traviata, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, March.

I have seen this opera many, many times in my opera-going life, but never have I seen one with more unusual characterizations. It forced a rethink of every single trope I had taken for granted. Alfredo, the male lead, was not a lovelorn romantic figure, but an obsessive weirdo bordering on abusive. Tenor Michael Fabiano captured every nuance of the character with magnetic clarity, and he was matched here, beautifully, by baritone Thomas Hampson, whose Giorgio was desperate, mean, and possibly more abusive than his son. It was a remarkably theatrical approach, and it was gripping to watch the two interact with Sonya Yoncheva’s sad, exhausted Violetta, a woman so desperately at the end of her rope she overlooks the character flaws of the men who constantly surround her. I had my reservations of Willy Decker’s production overall (more here) but I loved the central performances, and still think of them with awe.

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Colin Ainsworth and Peggy Kriha Dye in “Medea” at Opera Atelier. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

5. Medea, Opera Atelier; Toronto, April.

As with La traviata, the strength of the performances in Medea are seared into my memory. (My review here.) Tenor Colin Ainsworth embodied the wayward husband character with bravado, his Jason conniving, sexy, sensuous, and highly manipulative, always managing to say the right thing while shamelessly doing wrong, less a libidinous cartoon than a recognizably entitled man brought low by the slow-boiling rage of Peggy Kriha Dye’s titular sorceress. Their scenes together sizzled with an intense love-hate chemistry that so clearly reminded one of the all-too-human basis of mythology; these characters of yore may have odd names and be entangled in crazy-seeming stories, but Atelier’s production of the Charpentier work, for all its beautiful design elements, offered an important reminder that the human heart is a very messy and frequently painful place.

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky as part of Trio Magnifico. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

6. Trio Magnifico, Toronto; April.

The concert marked both the Canadian debut of soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov, as well as the final Canadian appearance of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. (My tribute to Dima here; my interview with Netrebko and Eyvazov here.) With the Canadian Opera Company orchestra led by Jager Bigiamini, the famed trio performed a Russian-heavy program that also featured several standard opera favorites, including Hvorostovsky’s anguished, heart-rending performance in a scene from Rigoletto. People can (and have) roll(ed) eyes that it was a concert about frippery and hype, that it lacked substance and/or deep artistry; everyone is entitled to such opinions. But for me, it was a concert where music became very real, where hearts were shamelessly worn on sleeves (and fancy dresses), and where the electric thrill of world-renowned voices was finally felt in a city that had waited too long for such a large-scale opera event. Bravo (and more of this, please).

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At the Konzerthaus Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

7. Herbert Blomstedt with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kit Armstrong, soloist; Konzerthaus Berlin, May.

Armstrong gave a beautiful, loving reading of Beethoven’s famous Third Piano Concerto, in a program that also featured Bruckner’s Fourth symphony. This concert was part of a series of programs dedicated to (and saluting the work of) pianist Alfred Brendel, and there was, I think, no better way to pay homage. The American artist didn’t pound the crap out of the keys or show off his Mad Finger Skillz the way some young soloists are prone to doing; rather, in perfect harmony with Blomstedt’s delicate direction of a creamy (if highly textured) Vienna Phil, Armstrong coaxed the gentle splendour out of  the fiendishly deceptive work with kindness, gentleness, and a profound sense of poetry. The focus was always very squarely on the music, as the audience at Konzerthaus so expertly proved with their careful, intense listening and, at the concert’s end, continuous applause and (rare for Berlin) standing ovation.

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The cast of “Die Krönung der Poppea” take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.)

8. Die Krönung der Poppea / Ball im Savoy Komische Oper Berlin, May.

If you’ve spent any time around me this year, chances are very good you’ve heard me rapturously talk about this, and probably more than once. To be plain: this updated version of The Coronation of Poppea was one of the best experiences in my entire opera-going life. Monteverdi’s score was infused with creative, modern, character-focused touches, thanks to Elena Kats Chernin’s ingenious instrumentations, and Katrin Lea Tag’s sexy, sparse design, together with Barry Kosky’s seriously smart direction, confidently underlined every bit of timeliness inherent to the work. This was sex, blood, murder, madness, power, set to repeat, and to a bang-up smashing soundtrack. The Komische Oper’s easy pairing of what could be called “high classical” works (like those by Monteverdi) with fun, frothy pieces like Weimar Republic operettas (i.e. a sassy, very funny production of Paul Abraham’s Ball at the Savoy, featuring the great Dagmar Manzel) highlighted the eclectic, culturally diverse performing arts scene in the Berlin opera world. This is a company (my write-up on them here) that understands the role both opera and operetta play in a healthy music ecosystem, and they do both with incredible style and smarts.

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The cast of “Der Rosenkavalier” take bows at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

9. Der Rosenkavalier, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, May.

Not only did this mark a goodbye (of sorts, maybe) for soprano Renée Fleming, it was also one of the most satisfying productions that has graced the Met stage in a very long while. Robert Carsen balanced every element with grace and panache, placing the story (about genteel Viennese in a battle of hearts and minds, of sorts) in a pre-WW1 setting, giving both the narrative and infusing its cast of characters with poignancy. The chemistry between Fleming and Elīna Garanča, in the pants role of Octavian, was gripping, magical, and very palpable. (More of my thoughts here.) We don’t have to guess at Octavian’s fate here; it isn’t, as so many productions might have you believe, happily-ever-after. Never has stripping the saccharine veneer off Viennese finery been more satisfying, or dare I say, beautiful.

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Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca, 2017. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

10. Tosca, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, May.

Mesmerizing stage presence, an imposing physique, a luscious tenor sound – this production could have well been called “Mario” for the heat Marcelo Puente brought to it. (My interview with him here.) The Argentinian tenor exuded star power in waves, even as he maintained perfect vocal control and demonstrated a deep respect for Puccini’s buttery score, his rendering of the famous “E lucevan le stelle” a clear cry out of spiritual and emotional darkness, dramatically rich as it was vocally fulsome. The chemistry Puente shared with leading lady Adrianne Pieczonka was notable for its casual ease; this was a Tosca and Mario who were clearly friends as well as lovers, something refreshing in an opera usually overstuffed with giant romantic gestures that don’t always feel sincere. This did.

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Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi in Toronto. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions)

11. Hibla Gerzmava in concert, Roy Thomson Hall; Toronto, June.

Despite some apparent throat issues, Gerzmava gave a beautiful concert with the Moscow Virtuosi, providing a splendid introduction for Canadians unfamiliar with the soprano’s incredible range and repertoire. (My review here.) What struck me watching Gerzmava live was how easily she moved between modes: diva, philosopher, dreamer. Some opera performers have one mode, which they only slightly alter between pieces and roles, and that’s fine too — every artist is a little bit different, an they do what works best for them, in the moment and for the long term — but Gerzmava melted into every single thing she sang, one moment teasing Virtuosi performers, the next, falling beautifully into a French aria. Her clear commitment to the variety of chosen repertoire was matched by a quicksilver tone and a gracious stage presence that made me keen to see her live onstage again soon.

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RIAS Kammerchor at St. Hedwig’s. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

12. Berliner Festspiele; September.

Autumn saw a quick if very busy trip to the German capital to cover concerts and performances at the annual arts event for Opera Canada magazine (published in their next edition in early 2018). A standout from the Fest includes the RIAS Kammerchor, led by Justin Doyle. Together with period instrument ensemble Capella de la Torre, the choir marked the 500th birthday of opera forefather Claudio Monteverdi by performing a series of day-spanning concerts at both the historic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and the modern Boulez Hall; the contrast was stark and beautiful, and very haunting. (My review here.) Also memorable was the Korean Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra, who offered a program chalk-full of works by Isang Yun, a Korea-born German composer whose 100th birthday year was being marked with events throughout the Festspiele. The Konzerthaus audience at the Sunday morning concert responded with incredible passion and offered beautifully careful listening as conductor Shiyeon Sung led her very elastic orchestra on a very gripping sonic journey.

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Roberto de Candia as Falstaff in Parma. (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

13. Falstaff, Teatro Regio di Parma; October.

Go outside the Teatro Regio and into the streets of Parma, and I guarantee you would have found any of the characters featured in Jacopo Spirei’s smart production of Verdi’s classic, based on the (in)famous Shakespeare character. (My interview with Spirei here.) This was a presentation that got every element right, from design to blocking to performances, while leaving great respect for the challenging if fiercely sparky score. Roberto de Candia was brilliant as the titular Falstaff — not a fun-loving-fat-man cliche, but a vulgarian bordering on loathsome, who was only redeemed by the strength and grace of the women around him. This wasn’t merry old England but dirty old Blighty and it was brilliant — and a troupe of English travellers I met at intermission heartily agreed, adding it was the best thing they’d seen at the Festival Verdi this year. (I agree.) I really hope this production travels to North America at some point; it has so much to say, and says it in such a smart, and frequently funny way.

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Dominik Köninger with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

14. Dominik Köninger in recital with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin, Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie Berlin; Berlin, October.

In seeing Die Krönung der Poppea, I wrote that the German baritone delivered a “snarling, sexy, utterly magnetic performance” as Nero, an observation perhaps made more poignant for it being one of the few darker roles he has done. Köninger is, as he told me over the course of a subsequent interview (link), usually cast in what could be considered good-guy roles like Papageno, Orpheus, Figaro, and lately, Pelléas. Perhaps he should consider adding more villains — or at least more darkly tormented figures. Köninger’s propensity and talent for deep, dark, yearning repertoire was shown to full effect in a concert given just before Halloween at the Philharmonie’s Chamber Concert Hall with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. Titled “Totentanz” (or “Death Dance”), the program was a smart, carefully curated mix of Grieg, Purcell, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Schubert, and Mahler; it also featured gripping instrumental selections and abridged scores from various films (including Psycho), rearranged for strings. This was a concert that transcended the corny, faux-scary Halloween tropes and went straight to the heart – of darkness, isolation, longing, claustrophobia, sadness, desolation — and showcased Koninger’s coppery-toned baritone. Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) and selections from Schubert’s Winterreise were true highlights, performed with exquisite soulfulness. Forget the good guys!

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“Nabucco” at Deutsche Oper Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

15. Nabucco, Deutsche Opera; Berlin, November.

People who know opera have lots of opinions about this work (it’s too long; it’s never done right; it’s too narratively meandering) but everyone, opera fan or not, knows the famous Hebrew Chorus (“Va pensiero”). Unquestionably, that’s just what some of the Deutsche Oper crowd was there to hear this past November, holding collective breath until it unfurled, note by majestic note, under the careful baton of conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. Still, there was an overall curiosity and appreciation of the intriguing staging and strong singing. The audience was confronted with an uncomfortably familiar world where deep polarization was sewn by the brutality of fervent nationalism and intolerant religiosity. This spicy timeliness was underlined by Anna Smirnova’s magnetic performance as Abigaille, Nabucco’s doomed daughter. Director Keith Warner denied audiences the sentimental mood (and ending) which is sometimes presented in productions, instead presenting a world where tenderness is rare, and highly dangerous. The “walls” of Tilo Steffens’s immense set shut before the doomed Abigaille at the close; there was no forgiveness for her trespasses. It was a devastating, disturbing, and frankly, fantastic conclusion to a challenging production of a work too often soaked in sentimentality and star power.

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Katrin Wundsam and Elsa Dreisig as Hänsel and Gretel at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. (Photograph: Monika Rittershaus)

16. Hänsel & Gretel, Staatsoper Unter Den Linden; Berlin, December.

Director Achim Freyer is known for his vivid designs, painterly approach, and almost cartoon-like visual sense, and I was very curious as to what he’d do with the beloved (and widely produced holiday standard) Hänsel und Gretel. No sooner did the music begin and I found myself utterly besotted by the whimsical effect in the famous Humperdinck work. The lost pair were rendered as living dolls, complete with giant eyes (which performers cleverly moved with well-placed levers) and charming, child-like gestures. The Gingerbread Witch didn’t have an actual face, but rather, an enormous, beckoning finger as a sort of stand-in “nose” (complete with a long, red fingernail) , a coffee pot “head,” and various bits and bites of food and goodies making up the rest (think Pizza The Hut, but with less gross factor and far more style). Together with Freyer’s captivatingly creative design, wonderful performances (including tenor Jürgen Sacher as the very campy witch), and strong orchestral coloring (thanks to conductor Sebastian Weigle), the essential tension of the original Grimm fairy tale (abundance vs. poverty) was underlined in large, small, and entirely unmissable ways. It was also special to have this opera be my first experience in the gorgeously renovated Berlin State Opera theatre  — talk about a delicious birthday treat!

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Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and soloists. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

17. Christian Thielemann with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Philharmonie Berlin, December.

I’m being perfectly honest when I write that conductor Christian Thielemann scares me — perhaps it’s the intensity, or that he reminds me of a few too many scowling band leaders from my high school days. Whatever the case, he didn’t need to smile or be cuddly to lead an astounding Berlin Phil through a non-stop, barn-burner performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Thielemann missed no chances to do the boom-bang version of Beethoven, but he also took time — lots of it — exploring, dare I say, the work’s many luxurious, foreplay-like moments (which sounds bizarre, since it is formally a religious piece, but!). The careful leanings into phrasing, the pregnant pauses, the fine drawing-out of vocal lines tenderly at one moment and whittling away strings and percussions into nothingness at others… some performances leave you (me) breathless, and this was one. When he held the rich, pregnant silence at the end, for several moments, no one in the Philharmonie breathed, or dared to; Thielemann has that effect. It was a very special and memorable way to experience the music of Beethoven at the Philharmonie for the first time — and again, was a special gift for my birthday week in Berlin.

18. Märchen im Grand Hotel (Fairy Tales from the Grand Hotel), Komische Oper Berlin, December.

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Talya Liebermann and Tom Erik Lie in “Märchen im Grand Hotel” at Komische Oper Berlin, 2017. (Photo: Robert-Recker.de)

Despite my lacking linguistic facility in German (which I intend to rectify in 2018), the production, with fantastically energetic conducting by Music Director Adam Benzwi, was totally understandable with its themes of sacrifice, acceptance, and change being the only constants in life. The assorted cast of animated characters were brought to vivid life by a dedicated ensemble dressed to the nines, with voices to match; soprano Talya Lieberman and baritone Tom Erik Lie were special standouts for capturing such lovely delicacy in their numbers. Another Grand Hotel-themed musical (the Tony Award-winning 1989 version) is being presented this coming season at the Shaw Festival (in southern Ontario), and I’m planning on a longer feature about this work’s various iterations in 2018, the staying power of Baum’s novel, and what it means for us in the here and now. Please stay tuned? More music adventures are afoot, though hopefully “close to home” will have a different meaning at this time next year.

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

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As Count di Luna in Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera, 2009. Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darling George

photo via

I have known and loved the music of George Michael for almost as long as I have known and loved opera. The sound of that creamy tenor has been as omnipresent in my life as the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. It was strange, and strangely satisfying, to see the idol of my youth aging and growing as an artist, cultivating his talents while expanding his range, repertoire, and sound with quiet determination.

The grimness of 2016 intensified with news of his passing on Christmas Day. I learned the news as I imagine many others did, on Facebook, noticing the update, “RIP to the best pop star of my life” from music writer Maura Johnston. I didn’t need to click on the link she’d posted to realize, with an awful sinking feeling, who she was referring to. Maura and I share a deep, abiding love of George and his music; we had traded tweets and notes about it over the years, and I had even contributed a piece to her magazine about that passion, which became part of a multi-issue, George-Michael-focused release. Maura has penned a perfect tribute for TIME and another, more personal piece for The Guardian; the latter is filled with smile-worthy memories and brilliant observations, this one striking so many recognizable chords:

While I was initially drawn in by Ridgeley’s cheekbones, I stuck around through Wham!’s breakup, and Michael’s eventual solo career, because the songs were thrilling, spinning like tops perched on a ledge, ready to fly off in another direction at any moment. Michael displayed reverence for all the right things – compositional craft, searing vocals, kindness, writing pop songs to make the world feel, briefly, like everything was OK – while also feeling ambivalent toward the aspects of his job that distracted from them.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect I am the only classical writer who contributed both to that all-George issue of Maura, and to Torontoist, in the form of a live concert review — which strikes me as funny and quite delightful, especially since one of George’s most memorable concerts in the last decade happened at the Palais Garnier. Indeed, George (it feels strange for me to call him anything else, though I never got the opportunity to meet him) was the first contemporary artist to play the historic opera house, and, all things considered, he seemed eminently suited to it, not only because of his then-recent Symphonica release, but because his deep and continuous cultivation of musicality, music history, the ever-changing pop idiom, and his place as an older artist.

(photo: Caroline True, via)

As a current opera writer with a pop-loving past, I tend to live in multiple sonic worlds that embrace rock, funk, R&B, hiphop and country right alongside classical. My current work and the way I’ve grown to listen and pay attention to performance and voice have opened the door for a broader appreciation of the musical gifts George Michael offered over his almost four decades of output. That magical tenor of his was far more agile, sensitive, and expressive than has been sometimes been acknowledged; over the years I’ve heard it called “flat,” “bland,” “too smooth” and “devoid of emotion.” Such criticism always struck me as facile at best, and snobbish at worst; they pointed to a kind of passive-aggressive whisper of, “that music isn’t real music” and “he isn’t a real musician.” As a teen, I’d hurriedly point out he played all the instruments on Faith and even did the backing vocals; it wasn’t vanity, I said, it was talent, an intentional exercise in creative control. What is “real” music anyway?! There are any number of overwhelming examples to point to that might explode such a ridiculous accusation, but more potent than all of them was the live experience.

My first big stadium concert experience was attending the gargantuan Faith tour in the late 1980s. Outside of hearing my favorite singer with tens of thousands of other cheering fans (I recall it being overwhelming at times), hearing that voice, live, was  —and there’s no other way to say it — life-changing. Even amidst tends of thousands of screaming teens, with amplification and effects, that voice was incredible; it swung, it swooped, it mewled, it roared. Having seen Pavarotti and Domingo live at the Met as a teenager, I knew the effect a beautiful voice could have — on me, and on others. I didn’t understand technique back then, and I didn’t fully appreciate what I was hearing, but listening back to both his live and album material now, as an adult, I am, more than ever, struck by the myriad of ways George could shape and bend his sound, to say nothing of the length and power of his vibrato to make a sound that glistened, floated, soared, or roared, cut, slashed; George did it all, with class, style, and elegance. He wasn’t a screamer, and he didn’t feel the need to be. In an era where “soft” was equated with weakness, and “sensuous” with vulgarity, he became the object of ridicule. Throughout my high school years, when being out wasn’t even an option, he was laughed at, his music met with eyerolls; George wasn’t “macho” enough for many of my fellow students to like (or at least admit they liked) —but it was always the lack of screaming, the lack of roughness or aggression that I liked.

(gif via)

The fact he was also blessed with good looks, great style, and a clear need to move to a beat helped. When acts like New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli cropped up, I curled my nose. How were they more acceptable (or even better) than George? Aside from their music holding no appeal, respective choreography seemed forced and joyless; by comparison, George’s hip-shaking, arm-waving, and bum-wiggling seemed fun, sexy, and frankly, familiar. He seemed like he’d be so much fun to go out dancing with. Also, I couldn’t listen to either Kids or Vanilli for very long; those voices were, to my ears, not good.  I’d been so spoiled. The way George had performed Black Cherry’s classic “Play That Funky Music” live, for instance (as part of the Faith tour), was saucy, playful, and very funky, with all of the original’s bounce intact, but a keen awareness of pace and rhythm. It was deeply musical and fun and smart and… you could dance to it! The combination was intoxicating, and remained so, through many decades.

However, the past few years deepened my appreciation of his vocal gifts. George had a warm, wheaty timbre he could expertly wield to accommodate any number of styles, including classic ballads, soul, funk, rock. His skill with balladry was on full display in the astonishing “One More Try” from Faith; he lived the words of that song, lovingly infusing each one with a profound, personal meaning that makes listening to it almost unbearably personal. The halting quality in his voice as he sings “stranger” and then “feet” in the second verse, then the sharp, biting contrast with singing “danger” and “heat” in the second couplet, reveals a world of heartbreak and thwarted hope that colored so much of his later work. It was one of George’s most famously soulful moments, and I feel, one of his most operatic.

(photo: 10awesome.com via)

Similarly, many will recall his soaring performance of Queen’s “Somebody To Love” in 1992. Who else could have realistically stepped into the shoes of the great, opera-leaning Freddie Mercury, and done such a bang-up job? He wasn’t Freddie — but he didn’t aim to be. “I work hard,” he declares at the start of the second verse, improvising a higher melodic line and threading it in with the main melody. Simultaneously buoyed by a monstrously wonderful backing choir and a regal authority, his was the performance everyone remembered from that tribute concert. (It was lovely to come across a video recently showing David Bowie smiling at that rehearsal.) Near the song’s end, George soars into a smooth if equally impassioned falsetto with the ease and grace Mercury excelled at, bringing a raw vulnerability to a raucous, jaunty rock and roll classic.

Years before this performance, he’d caused shock with “I Want Your Sex” but I suspect it wasn’t solely the title or song’s content that caused controversy. The way George sings it is just deeply, deliciously dirty. His is a throaty, pushed kind of growl, one cleverly combined with whispers, shouts, and whimpers. One of the supreme pleasures of re-listening to the entirety of Faith over the last few months has been how nicely the material, and this song in particular, translates into adulthood. We (us fans) all merrily sang along to “I Want Your Sex” as teens, screamed it back at its creator live, winked and giggled and may have done some theatrical pelvic thrusts on the dance floor on Club Med vacations, but hearing it as a woman, the reaction is (for me at least) less outward, and more quietly confident, a seduction delivered in slow smiles, eyebrow raises, lingering stares. The subtleties of the song — and they are myriad! — reveal themselves in George’s exquisite vocals, which are brilliantly contrasted by the repeated, organ grinder-esque synth lines and a squishy, pumping rhythm. The simplicity of the arrangement echoes that other perfect synth masterpiece, “Everything She Wants” but contains its direct opposite in experiences, while holding the same musical tension and intensity. Near the song’s close, as his own backing vocals provide a rhythmic, staccato-like declamation filled with a sort of hip-thrusting jubilance (“Hua, SEX!“), George’s knowing vocal punctuates the line:

I’m not your father
I’m not your brother
Talk to your sister
I am a lover

These lines are delivered as statements, full stops, declarations; the confidence of the vocal is breathtaking, to say nothing of the beautiful howl that erupts at the end of that, followed by a carefully-pitched, descending moan. Every time I hear it now I think of Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from the opera Samson et Dalila — each being, for me, a delicious, potion of desire, fever, seduction, even romance — a fervent paean to being alive, a shiny talisman against despair.

(photo via)

And this, in the end, is George Michael’s catalogue to me. I haven’t even mentioned the many beautiful collaborations he did with favorite artists — Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and many others — or the sparkling cover versions he did of of songs new and old. His music (whether it’s specifically his, or music he has made especially his own) isn’t so much a tie to a rosy, cozy pat as it is a flowing river connecting that past with a harsher present, and ever-shifting future. He was magic, he was opera, he was a legend, but he was also defiantly, utterly himself — and in that act, he whispered, moaned, shouted, crooned, and pleaded, with that magical voice of his, for me to be myself. We never got to go dancing (something I’d dreamed of as a teen) and I never got to shake his hand (something I dreamed of as an adult) but he showed me how to listen for the beat, to create my own steps, to choose my own partners, and to walk off if things weren’t working. I owe him so much. We all do. George, you have been loved.



Lasting

Today’s not only the last day of 2012, it’s the last day the Lenox Lounge is open.

This past year has been filled with many good moments, but spending time in the noisy, busy, buzzy environs  of the historic Harlem jazz club rates at the top. For all my love of New York City and its vibrant energy, there was something uniquely, defiantly old-school, bad-ass NYC about the LL. It had a rich sense of history, pungent through every aspect of its being: from walls to drinks to the look of the patrons and musicians alike, something winked, with long lashes, as lacquered nails held stubby cigarette, “history, baby…

The Lenox Lounge will be history tonight.

A certain sadness over lost places presented itself during a recent Toronto visit over the December holidays. All my old youthful haunts -the Uptown Theatre on Yonge Street, Flo’s Diner in Yorkville, Sam The Record Man near the Eaton Centre -are gone, replaced with shiny-glass/hard-concrete boxes. They’re monolithic symbols of an infuriating brand of unquestioned cultural homogeny, the pervasiveness of which I find totally depressing. No one remembers -and if they do, they shrug; who cares?

Now, nostalgia is a word – a concept -I don’t always like, but it does have its uses. And, it must be said, I do mourn the loss of historic markers signifying another time and era. It worries me to think I’ve turned into one of those white-templed, sharply-cheek-boned women tut-tutting the kids of today who “don’t know any better!” But perhaps there’s nothing wrong with becoming that grand old dame, either. “I remember when!” might be a good mantra; there’s something good about being a (hopefully somewhat glam) living, breathing collection of memories of a lost era. I tell younger friends about loopy, wild times enjoyed in the Toronto and New York of old, and I get dumb stares. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fun. We felt we were connected to something larger than us -the people who’d gone before, generations who’d worked on those old buildings, warm bodies and flustered souls who’d sweat in those old theaters and clubs and stores, curious types who passed through, looking for fireworks and noise and fury, leaving with new colors, shapes, ways of being and seeing in the world. There was something older, grander, larger around us, a history that wasn’t choking but enlivening, not constricting but yawning wide in a creaky old embrace. Everything was crooked, dirty, cock-eyed, chipped and scruffy; nothing looked the same, because nothing and no one was. Way Back When wasn’t shiny, but it could hardly be called dull.

I remember when!” It’s a mantra that commands a weird respect, even as it inspires reminiscence tinged with whimsy, sadness, and regret. You feel your age when you say it. Bones creak. Breath tightens. Nose hairs appear. Another year passing means more buildings knocked over, more places like the Lenox Lounge vanishing. It’s good to cherish the past but it’s troubling when you’re stuck in it. Problems arise when “I remember when!” comes “To hell with tomorrow!” So maybe it’s best whispered, as jazz joints and record stores and grand old cinemas vanish, to remember those places with a smile and to wait, with baited breath, for what 2013 might bring. I remember that, but I’m curious about this.

Just please, keep the glass boxes. Bland has no place in the future I envision.

(Photos taken from my Flickr stream)

Merci, Mr. French

2010 began with the death of an artist I admired; so it also ends.

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of singer Lhasa de Sela in January. Equally, on this snowy December day, I am deeply upset to learn of the death of David French.

I interviewed both Lhasa and David French, though Lhasa was a phone interview, rendering any sense of the intimacy that comes with eye-to-eye-contact impossible. We chatted about favorite singers, concerts, technology, and those lovely “a-ha!” artistic moments, and it felt like a yack with a longtime gal pal. Interviewing Mr. French was a different experience altogether -more formal, less loose, a bit more scary, but no less intriguing, inspiring, and ultimately rewarding.

One of Canada’s most beloved playwrights, David French was probably best-known for works that feature the faulty, feuding, brooding, bruised and confused Mercer family. Leaving Home, Saltwater Moon, and Leaving Home are works I return to again and again through the years, finding more and more to draw inspiration from, as well as more compassion, more humour, and more humanity. Yet it isn’t familiarity so much as the raw emotional honesty of his characters that draws me back. These are characters who don’t merely propel plot points -they live, breathe, sweat, swear, fight, and bleed, frequently making even the best British kitchen-sink drama seem maudlin. Anger isn’t the driving force behind French’s characters; love is. That love is palpable in the back row as much as the front; it’s present just as much on the page as on a stage. You don’t have to know a lot about theatre, much less even like it, to feel that overpowering sense of love that infuses the work of David French. Maybe that’s what made him not only an accomplished playwright in his own regard but a sought-after translator of works like The Seagull and Three Sisters (classics that, like his own contemporary counterparts, revolve around families and a powerful love) and a popular mentor and teacher to many aspiring writers.

His reputation as an incredible, incredibly accomplished writer was an interesting companion to the smiling, quiet figure I ran into at various theatre openings, most notably at Toronto company Soulpepper, who produced his beautiful, heart-rending works many times in the past decade. It was they who arranged our interview one rainy spring day in 2009, when Of The Fields Lately was set to open.

David arrived ten minutes before interview time, his blue shirt dotted with raindrops.

“Damn rain,” he grumbled, before meeting my smiling gaze and taking my outstretched hand.

We chatted a bit as my crew got mics and lights ready. David seemed a wee bit overwhelmed by the technology, and in truth, I felt bad at his coming through the rain and patiently enduring a last-minute microphone change-up. When the interview began, I was understandably nervous, and I think he was, too. We played off each others’ nerves, as I gently opened the interview, asking a few basic questions around the play. I remember being wildly worried I was making a horrible impression on this Canadian genius playwright. But the minute he smiled at me, a warm, deep smile that lit up his eyes, I relaxed.

Still, like the good writer he was, David chose his words carefully, and was always quite guarded, if equally opinionated. He frequently paused, his answers coming like the best syncopated lines from a Monk solo: when the chords inevitably hit, you knew they meant something, and damn it, you wanted to listen. His sometimes-stern, lion-like demeanor belied the pussycat heart that beat within. He had to trust you to open up to you fully.

A great way to create that trust, I learned, was to ask him about his process of writing, of creating worlds using the power of words -something he knew a thing or two about. David’s love of writing was awe-inspiring. When I shared my visceral reaction to his characters, the very element I feel drives all of his work, he half-smiled, perhaps lost in his memories of their creation, before offering the honest, if deeply insightful observation that “a large part of every character I write comes from myself. I am every one of those characters“.

In a way, David French lives on through “those characters” -through Jacob Mercer, through Mary Mercer, and even (especially?) Jessica, Patrick, and the rest of the jumpy Jitters team. It feels like a special blessing for those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing his work produced -and again, special thanks to Soulpepper, otherwise me, and thousands like me, probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity. We’d be relying on reminiscence, reports, nostalgia. Producing the work of David French was, and is, a reminder of the contemporary feel, and equally, the timelessness, of human, humane creation. He was Canadian, but belonged to the world. His creations are specific to this country; the emotions and situations within are universal. He is ours; he is everyone’s; he is unto himself. David had that special magic to be able to conjure those various parts of himself and translate that into a real, raw, forcefield of human energy and… love. Always love. That quality -a combination of raw skill and deep emotion -never goes out of style, in theatre, or indeed, in any art form. And it never will.

Thank you, David. For everything.

Bottom photo credit:
Noah Reid, Kevin Bundy, Mike Ross, Oliver Dennis, C. David Johnson in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s 2010 production of Jitters.
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

Gracias, Lhasa

It was with great sadness, and more than a little shock, that I learned of Lhasa de Sela‘s recent passing. The gypsy-esque, European-influenced singer has become a favourite of mine, with her hauntingly sensual low voice, poetic, surreal lyrics, and open embrace of various cultural sounds, from Latin-influenced to Eastern European, and all genres – folk, rock, electronica, klezmer -in-between

I remember being excited and little nervous when I interviewed Lhasa last spring about her new album. After the rich, gleeful sounds of 1998’s La Llorona, and the world-folk sounds of 2003’s The Living Road, she wasn’t sure people would be prepared for the moody, stripped-down atmosphere of her newest, self-titled offering, recorded entirely live. Our conversation ran the gamut, from background to influences to singing styles. We tossed around the benefit and drawbacks of analog and digital technologies; we talked about soul music, and since visual art played a big part in her albums, we talked about the relationships between music and visuals. I’ll never forget what she said: “music is a conversation; art is just for yourself.”

Lhasa’s music defiantly (fabulously) rejects any easy categorization or definition, in the same manner that many of my favourite artists do, including, notably, Gavin Friday. In these days where pop, rock, dance, rap, hip-hop and country are both more loosely defined and yet more rigorously defined (and defining) than ever, Lhasa’s music was (and remains) a breath of fresh air. Curiosity, passion, and an indefatigable spirit to explore new-meets-old sonic territory in unusual, challenging ways is a hallmark of good artistry, and a demonstration of commitment to one’s craft (or muse, if you will). Lhasa was committed. Her music doesn’t always make you comfortable; it makes you think. It takes you to places where you’d rather not venture, but can’t say “no” to. Her voice was a call to stumble, trance-like, up a hill, in the dark, knees bleeding, hands scraping at dirt, and then stand at the edge of a windy cliff, not merely admiring the view but wondering at horrors you left lurking below, and distorting them into shapes you could at least live with -until the next siren song, anyway.

Losing her is upsetting for so many reasons: she was so young; she hadn’t found the kind of acclaim at home that she’d found overseas; there’s still so much she had to give the world. Lhasa had an uncanny ability to pull her own experiences through the intricate, beautiful webs of tone, timbre, syllables and symbols, rendering the intimate epic, and shrinking the absolute to lacy uncertainty. As she told me in the spring,

That’s one of the wonderful things about music: you can say very intimate things, and they become universal – other people can relate to them. If it was just me singing about me, then I would feel embarrassed. I feel like I’m searching for the grain of something other people can understand.

Ultimately, art is about connection. Getting the chance to connect with Lhasa for twenty minute was a treat I’ll always cherish. “Now that my heart is open / there is no way it can be closed or broken.”

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