Tag: social media

Lisette Oropesa: “Context Is Everything As A Singer”

Oropesa soprano singer woman vocal portrait

Photo: Jason Homa

Lisette Oropesa is a woman with opinions. Over the course of a lengthy recent conversation, the Cuban-American soprano mused on everything from the challenges and joys of directors and conductors, to the pressures of being a woman in the opera and online worlds. She is every bit as bold and vivacious off the stage as she is on it.

The New Orleans native was a winner of the 2005 Met Opera National Council Auditions and joined the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, graduating in 2008. She made her Met stage debut in 2006 with Idomeneo (as Woman of Crete) and the following year, made her professional debut in a principal role, as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Since then, Oropesa has appeared on the Met stage in over one hundred performances in a wide array of roles, including Amore in Orfeo ed Euridice, Sophie in Werther, the Dew Fairy in Hänsel und Gretel, Gilda in Rigoletto, Woglinde in Das Rheingold, and as her namesake in La Rondine. She has also sung with an array of North American and European companies, including Opera Philadelphia, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Welsh National Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, and La Monnaie/De Munt, Bruxelles, as well as a numerous festivals including Glyndebourne, Arena di Verona, Savonlinna, Tanglewood, Ravinia, and the Rossini Opera Festival.

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As Norina in Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne, 2017. Photo: Bill Cooper

She’s worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Sir Anthony Pappano, Carlo Rizzi) and equally celebrated directors (David McVicar, David Alden, Damiano Michieletto, Claus Guth, Andreas Kriegenburg), and has performed most of the great bel canto roles (Donizetti’s Lucia, Adina, Norina) along with French (Meyerbeer, Massenet, assenet,  Thomas), Baroque (Handel, Gluck) and Verdian (Traviata, Rigoletto, Masnadieri) repertoire, as well as oratorio, recital, and concert work. Oropesa has also performed the role of Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction From The Seraglio), in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper (2017 and 2018) and will be appearing in the Mozart work again, at Glyndebourne next summer opposite Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala as Blonde. Next year sees Oropesa sings the role of Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia (at Opera Bastille) and will be giving a number of recitals and concerts across Europe, including an appearance at the Wexford Festival Opera. 

Amidst all of this (or perhaps to because of it), Oropesa is a devoted runner and an advocate of healthy eating; she has completed numerous marathons, even as she has also been vocal about the ongoing issue of body shaming in the opera industry. A recipient of both the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 Beverly Sills Artist Award and the 2019 Richard Tucker Award, her supple soprano is marked by an easy flexibility and incredible core of warm vibrancy that seems like a perfection reflection of her vivid personality. Those qualities were on full and lush display this past autumn when Oropesa appeared as the title role in Massenet’s Manon, in a revived production by Laurent Pelly. Opera writer Patrick Dillon wrote of her performance that “(t)he voice, with its seductive silvery glimmer, has enough colour to give it texture and depth and enough power to make Massenet’s musical points without straining.[…] She’s the finest Manon I’ve heard since the glory days of Beverly Sills.”

That isn’t to say Oropesa has been changed by fame – if anything, she’s one of the most upfront artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of conversing with. It’s rare and entirely refreshing to speak with someone so entirely, authentically themselves. Witty, original, passionate, with a ferocious intelligence and keen insight, it will be interesting to see where Oropesa goes in her career. This weekend (November 24th) she’s set to appear as Ophelia in an in-concert presentation of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet in Washington, before a return to the Met in February for Violetta in La traviata. We spoke just before the Tucker Awards ceremony in New York City last month.

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At the Richard Tucker Awards gala at Carnegie Hall, October 2019. Photo: Dario Acosta

What did you think when you learned of the Richard Tucker Award?

It’s pretty awesome, although it was a total surprise, like, “Really? are you guys sure?!” I always saw as a gift to somebody about to really take off, and I felt like I took off and never got the award – so I figured I was past it. They can only pick one year and there are so many singers having wonderful careers, I mean, they just have to get the right person at the right time. I’d already made debuts at the Royal Opera, La Scala, Paris, I’d been signing at the Met, and thought, “I’m too far in my career now.” Some said they felt I should’ve been given it before, but really, who’s to say it’s more overdue for me than for anyone else? Tons of brilliant artists deserve it – I wish they’d give ten awards instead of one, but it’s hard to raise the money.

What’s the benefit of receiving the award for you? 

Whenever I’m at home in the States, I teach and go to universities and I always talk about the business as it is right now, because (the students) get a perspective they don’t always get from their teachers or a traveling coach. Maybe eventually, when I exit performance, I will become a teacher because I really enjoy it. I was thinking about how to use the grant in the best way; it’s easy to say, “I’ll spend it on myself” but I’d really like to set up a scholarship at my school. I haven’t made any promises yet; I don’t want to anticipate something that isn’t necessarily going to work. I have all these ideas but $50,000 doesn’t go very far. 

The investment in a classical career is immense and long-term and doesn’t guarantee a payoff

Yes, and it’s very disheartening. You get to the point where you literally run out of money and you have to figure out what you’re going to do, and hope your parents or a rich patron will help you for those years of your career. In the middle you could have a slump too, initially doing well but then someone else comes along who has a whirlwind around them so you may lose work to another artist, or you may get pregnant and have to cancel a year and a half’s worth of engagements. I’ve never been pregnant, but I’d imagine deciding what to do in that situation is hard. I don’t have kids because it was never my calling to be a mother; I thought about it for five minutes. I thought, “If I want to do this and have a child, I can’t do both.” It’s an investment in my part. It may take away a certain aspect of my life, but I say “no” to this so I can say “yes” to that.

Women – especially female artists – can be held to a different standard, especially if they’re in the public eye in whatever capacity.

Right now, in the heat of the #MeToo movement, everyone thinks it’s just about harassment – that’s a big part of any industry and there’s no reason ours should be any different – but there’s more to it. We struggle with objectification, and yes, being held to a different standard. When you’re at a rehearsal and tossing out ideas to a basically all-male cast, you’re almost always in the minority as a female; the director is almost always male, the conductor almost always male, and you, as a female, have to assert yourself or completely do the “Yes sir, whatever you like” thing. It’s very tough, because when you want to say something or have an idea, you are perceived as a diva or a bitch; you’re considered “difficult.”

… because you’re not genuflecting. It takes a lot of confidence to pipe up; you feel very alone in a very entrenched culture that isn’t entirely conscious of its own architecture, and sometimes doesn’t want to be. 

Totally agree. I’ve never been harassed in the sense of, “if you don’t do this, you won’t get that” – the quid pro quo situation is not that common. But it’s the subtle things; they are real and happen all the time – the winks, the compliments, the “Sweetie, I love that dress on you” and “Damn, you look great in that low-cut blouse” and “You have such nice legs”… I’ve never thought of it as harassment in the sense of it making me feel miserable or bad about myself, but as women we get to the point of tolerance, so our threshold for that kind of thing is much higher.

I think it often has to be in order for us to function. The system has been set up so that a woman often can’t (or won’t) adjust that threshold of tolerance because of the related cost being too high.

Exactly. When you’re’ desperate and hungry, it’s different. And hey, I’ve seen and been in situations where I felt women were taking advantage – that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. I’ve also seen successful women behave and talk and dress and flirt a certain way and I think to myself, why? At this point, it shouldn’t be necessary. And it’s such a cheap trick. It’s low-hanging fruit! Any gorgeous woman can use it to advantage – and how many women can have careers doing that? Sure it has power, but it’s old feminine power. We have new feminine power now that is intelligent, perceptive, open, emotional, clear – instead of this boring, age-old adage of, “I have big tits and a nice ass and that makes me powerful” – no, it means you have a certain body type, but that’s not your power. 

It’s power tied to male gaze. 

Yes, for sure.

It’s important to be cognizant of the fact that power greatly depends on the culture you’re operating in, and the ways an artist can sometimes be boxed in by old cultural definitions. Have you ever felt you were put on the spot in terms of being a cultural spokesperson? 

I think people have a need to label. They just do. I had this question the other day: “If you had to define your voice type, can you give me a word?” And I thought, hmmmm. People have a need to label, as with race and ethnicity and sexual orientation, everything has to be defined. Mine’s simple: both my parents are from Cuba. I spoke Spanish growing up. I’ve always said I was Cuban-American. It’s honorable. If they say, where are you from? I don’t take offense. I speak Spanish and have a Cuban accent when I do; I listened to Latin music and watched Latin TV growing up. People will go, “Oropesa, what is that?” It’s an honor to my parents and grandparents with whom I spoke only Spanish and I’m proud of it, but at the same time, does it make me a spokesperson for Latin-American singers? I don’t think of it as a negative thing. People have asked me if I think being Latin in the U.S. has helped me in some way, and yeah, actually I do think it helps, but it also helps that I look white! You can’t look too Latin. 

Jemaine Clement has said something similar, that “(a)s a pale-skinned Māori person, I felt like a spy as a kid.”

Yes, we “pass for white,” so to speak. Not all my family is like this; there’s a brown side. My grandmother is beige. My father was quite dark. I have one side very Barcelona European, so I have that look, but have another side with more beige, but I don’t care. I think it’s beautiful. we come in all colors of the rainbow, and can be whatever we choose to represent and put out there. 

People want to see a Hollywood representation of exactly the setting given by the composer, but the problem is, these operas have to be sung – they’re not paintings, they have to be performed by singers. And while it would be lovely as close to a racial dial as possible, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist at the time. When you think about how often people are putting on Aida… it’s put on everywhere, and there are not enough black Aidas in the world to go around! And it’s a problem for black singers; if you’re black, should you only sing black roles? If certain stories have race as an important aspect of the drama, then yes, either you get a black Aida, or you paint someone to look black, because if you make a white Aida then you’re not helping black singers, and you are making excuses for black singers not to get hired.

Russell Thomas said something very similar to me when he was in Toronto for Otello last winter. He said the character “just can’t be white—it doesn’t work dramaturgically” and if that does happen, then “minority artists will lose out every time.” 

It’s true. I have friends who have talked about this at length and I’ve spent time reading thousands of the threads about this, and they said, basically, that if you don’t paint Aida black, you’re painting the way for no more Aidas, and paving the way for fewer opportunities, because you’re cutting out a big piece of the pie. It would be like not making Porgy and Bess all-black. I wish there was blind casting. That’s how it was when I played the flute – it was behind a curtain, no one could see!

When I spoke with Lucia Lucas earlier this year, she said the same thing about blind auditions. But some people say they need to see how a performer moves, their expressions, if they have a certain presence.

That’s what opera has that other art forms don’t have: the musical aspect and the dramatic aspect. It’s that combination, and it’s why singers have to look a certain way. Either you live in it or you don’t. It’s complicated, because we want to say these issues exist but we don’t get to the point where we’re censoring opera and ignoring race and acting like its not important or not valid; we don’t want to get the point where we’re rewriting operas and censoring them. We want these pieces to stand as representations of what was happening at the time. Yes it’s hard to see some of these works, but this is why theatre is exciting. We want to be part of it, but if we go too far in one direction, the backlash is a swing to the other direction, and that’s a problem.

Good directors can sometimes inspire a reconsideration of a piece within the broader context of the issues you mention. What’s been your experience?

I’ve done two productions with Claus Guth – for the first, I jumped in at the last minute for his Rigoletto-in-a-cardboard-box, which I thought was brilliant. I learned it in one day! His assistant was incredible; she answered all these questions I had, and was great to work with. I did his production of Rodelinda in Barcelona as well, and he came toward the end and shared a lot of things. For one character, he’d envisioned and staged him to have a limp and an eyepatch and to walk with a cane; he was the bad guy. When Claus came to rehearsals, he saw the guy singing that role (bass-baritone Gianluca Margheri) was gorgeous and buff, and just was not believable as this hunched-over, weak, bad guy with a chip on his shoulder, so Claus re-staged the entire role. I thought, wow, it takes a lot for a director to do that! Not all of them will – they’ll say, “Sorry, you don’t fit my vision!” and make you feel like shit, or fire people. Sometimes they’ll say, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you fit?!” and it almost never ends well.

The super-successful directors are so busy and they can’t be everywhere, and Claus is a good example of that. For this Met production of Manon, I never got to meet (its director) Laurent Pelly, but I worked with his assistants. If Laurent had been there, he might’ve made changes – the original singer (for the production) was Netrebko, and we couldn’t be more different, but assistants aren’t authorized to change costuming or stage traffic What do directors do? Everything, from ruining things you want to do, to bringing out the best in you to make you think or sit back and let you stage yourself. Everyone is different.

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As Rodelinda (with Gianluca Margheri as Garibaldo) at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2019. Photo: A. Bofill

That echoes a singer’s relationship with a conductor, which can be even more intense.

It certainly helps to have a good first few rehearsals. If they rip into you initially, they’re asserting their authority and I’ve learned to sniff that out and not take it personally, but a conductor who is willing to listen to your ideas without you having to spell them out all the time is nice; a conductor who is willing to lead when they have to lead, and follow when they have to follow is even better. Some only lead, some only follow, and there’s a valid place for both.

I like being led by a conductor when I’m doing something I really know well. When I could roll out of bed sick and sing it no matter what, I’m happy to have them lead and do what they want; if I’m doing a role I need help with, to ease me in some places and push me in others, then I like to lead, and that’s there’s lots of subtle things with that. There are also the ones who don’t listen, or don’t follow, or know when to follow, or they insist on leading even though they know you’re not following them, or they don’t perceive you are struggling; there are some who aren’t perceptive, and that only comes with musical sensitivity. 

I’ve had experiences where I’ve thought the conductor hated me for weeks, and then the production turns out to be a huge success, but it’s usually because I’m on my toes and scared to do anything wrong, and in the end it meshes together. And the audience doesn’t know what happens before – they don’t care if you’ve been through six months or hell with this guy, and they go, “Oh wow, so beautiful! What a wonderful collaboration!” and you think, my God, you have no idea.

Opera is an art of true collaboration – do you find the nature of those collaborations change over time? I would imagine the nature of  collaboration changes depending on the context in which it unfolds.

Context is everything as a singer; it’s probably more important than anything else. The next biggest thing is your preparation. You can bring all the preparation in the world: you will get there, and the conductor will be difficult, the director will be challenging, your colleagues you may not mesh with, you might have a theatre that does not support your rehearsal process, you might have a coach who make you do different things than you want, you may find your costumes uncomfortable… this is all the stuff audiences don’t know or understand. They’re at the end of the marathon waiting for you to finish; they don’t see when you fell and what it took to get there. It’s why you have to be a very strong person.  Your audience may start shooting bullets and they may feel entitled to like what they saw – they paid a lot to see it – and they’ll throw a lot at you, and you have to process that. Most of us try to improve and keep going through the run. Your heart has to be protected.

Part of that is context involves social media. You have said you try to minimize technological interaction; how do you balance an authentic portrait as an artist and keeping up engagement?

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Backstage at Concertgebouw Amsterdam during a 2015 in-concert performance of Rigoletto. Photo: Steven Harris

I control all of my social media – it is completely organic and controlled by me and my husband. Steven’s a web developer so I’m lucky, and he’s smart about the right kind of posts, making sure the information is on there, and the cast is there too, so you’re getting information and the right content, and he’ll run things by me first. If I want to write a message, he’ll come to me, and then we’ll share ideas. I try to engage everyone and respond to comments. I don’t get to all of them, but try to say “thank you.” I get a lot of sweet messages on social media and I don’t want people to feel they’re not being heard.

As far as Instagram goes; it has a stupid algorithm. If you want to get on the feed you have to post a lot, and always post those thirsty photos, but there’s also a psychological element. If Stephen and I go to pick a photo for Instagram, he’ll look through my pictures and say, “Well, people tend to stop on photos of faces, so if you have one of your face, let’s use that.” So even if I feel like I want to post a great photo of a flower or a sunset, I know it won’t get as much traction – I mean, sure, you can do it for yourself, but if you want to reach more people, you have to find things the algorithm supports. It’s artificial but the platform wants you to be somehow authentic.

A pastiche of authenticity…

Right, “authentic”… then it becomes that old idea of power we discussed. I feel sorry for girls who have that look because they learn early on in life, “Here’s my currency; this is my only currency” and they market themselves as that, and then in opera, it’s almost an afterthought: “Oh, and I just happen to have a voice.” I’m the girl who always grew up overweight and never popular, so I see it from a distance; it must be so hard to keep up. What happens when it fades? In ten years or less another one will take the place of this girl; it’s so short-lived. You may make a crap ton of money, retire early – who knows? – I feel like it’s a shame, that age-old trope of “beauty = value” because it pressures who who aren’t so beautiful and sends a message of, “you’re secondary in importance because you don’t have that one thing.”

It also entrenches old definitions of beauty, because “beautiful” … according to whose rules? There are many people who don’t fit that old definition, and so what? Opera is well-positioned to challenge precepts, as Kathryn Lewek did. It can’t exist to entrench old ones; it needs to destroy and rebuild them into something more accurately revealing and reflecting our world, or so I want to believe.

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As Manon at the Metropolitan Opera, 2019. Photo: Marty Sohl

“Beautiful” is so much about perception. Some people think Claus’s productions are beautiful, some think they’re ugly and dark. I have learned so much doing Manon in terms of all this. After we opened, I read the reviews and feedback, and a lot of the things I read were negative, the gist being that I am not sexy enough to play her, I’m not beautiful enough to play her, I’m not convincing as the object of every man’s desire – I read pretty much that exact quote. And that really hurt. 

Yes, there is a world in which Manon is just a man-eater, but there’s also a world in which Manon has something about her, like, it’s not that she’s the most obviously gorgeous woman physically, but the fact she’s mysterious, she’s fun, she has something about her. It’s hard for some to accept that. There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!” I used to think of myself as very ugly, and that child is still inside. When I think I’ve gone to all this trouble to be confident in my appearance so my body and voice could finally match, and people are still going, “Oh even at a size 4 she’s not hot enough” I think, fuck this, I’m going back to eating ice cream! 

It’s vital those definitions be remade, especially in an art form notoriously adverse to change.

I never tell young singers they need to lose weight. Never. That person may go do it and still not be hot enough for somebody – if you’re going to do it, do it for your health, but do not do it for your career. It won’t change anybody’s perspective of you. You can be cute in a size 16 or a size 2. If you want to force yourself into sexiness, fine, but accept who you are. Some people don’t think I’m a sexy Manon and I just feel like…  that’s not who I am. 

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As Hébé in Les Indes Galantes at Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016. Photo: W. Hösl

Again, “sexy” according to whom? There are these very conventional ideas that Carmen has to be hot, Manon has to he hot, Violetta has to be hot – who gets to decide what is “hot”?  I want to believe some will feel a woman being her authentic self is more attractive and desirable, onstage or off.

Carmen is a perfect example! It is the most stereotypical concept to approach it as,  “she has to be this hot woman, it’s the only way she’s believable!” – and the same with Manon, this attitude of, “she has to be the woman des Grieux would give up his life for.” So she has to look like Kim Kardashian?” It makes him look stupid. It makes him look shallow. Then you make her shallow, and people hate her even more. I mean, yes, Manon is an opera about a selfish bitch, and people can’t handle that, they want to see a victim, someone pliable,a woman who’s willing to please. But it’s also why people argue about opera – I’ve never seen more polarizing perspectives than in doing this opera.

I think of Natalie Dessay, who I love and who is not conventionally beautiful but my God, you couldn’t take your eyes off her! And she didn’t pose her way through a role, ever; she wasn’t standing on stage posing this way and that. That’s the example that needs to be out there, because that’s the kind of artistry I want to see in the world, for women and men alike.

Saimir Pirgu: “Don’t Forget That You’re A Human Being”

Photo: Paul Scala

If there’s one quality that can be applied to Saimir Pirgu, it’s bravery, though perhaps “ballsy” is a better word.

Having left his native Albania as an ambitious teenager intent on a singing career, he graduated in singing at the Conservatory Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano, and was singled out by conductor Claudio Abbado at the tender age of 22 to perform the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Three years earlier, however, he sang for another famous opera figure: Luciano Pavarotti. And what an introduction it was. In the midst of his studies at the conservatory, the great Italian tenor, who was visiting the area in the early 2000s, had requested to hear a few of the school’s students. Pirgu launched into “Uno furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a well-known work arguably made even more famous by Pavarotti’s famed performances of it. (What’s more, Pavarotti had named Nemorino (Donizetti’s famous dolt of the opera) as his favorite opera role of all time.) In a 2017 interview, Pirgu recalls Pavarotti aking with wonder at the end of his performance, “Who taught you to sing like that? Do you know that you sing very well?” It would mark the beginning of what has become a very busy career.

The tale underlines Pirgu’s no-nonsense personality and ambitious approach. With a full calendar and appearances at such renowned houses as the Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Opernhaus Zürich, and Teatro Regio di Parma, Pirgu has also performed in some unique locales, including, this past summer, with the Greek National Opera at the ancient site of Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis. Listen to Pirgu singing and you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve turned on something from another era; his flexible, mellifluous sound conjures up ghosts of opera yesteryear, and is beautifully suited to the lyrical Italian and French repertoire he focuses on. That doesn’t mean he’s a fossil, embraces intransigent historicism, or only appears in old-style productions; quite the opposite. Pirgu has appeared in some very modern productions (as you will see) and has some strong thoughts about the role of the director and singer relationship. There’s no denying his 2015 album, Il Mio Canto (Opus Arte), recorded with powerhouse conductor Speranza Scappucci and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is a wonderfully vivid display of the sort of old-school vocal fireworks and deep lyricism at which he excels; comparisons have, therefore, predictably been made between he and historic tenors like Giuseppe Di Stefano, but, as you’ll read, he takes it all in stride, preferring to focus on the task at hand.

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As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Teatro di San Carlo (Naples), 2019. Photo: Luciano Romano

Earlier this year he appeared at Royal Opera House Covent Garden as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he previously performed at Teatro di San Carlo (Naples) and Staatsoper Hamburg. Over the years, he’s tackled a number of chewy Verdi tenor roles as well, including Macduff in Macbeth (at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona in 2016), Gabriel Adorno in Simon Boccanegra (Naples, 2017), and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera (Parma, 2019). This is particularly intriguing, since Pirgu’s career has been so firmly centered around what might be considered the “grounding” roles for tenor repertoire: Puccini’s Pinkerton (from Madame Butterfly), The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Verdi’s Alfredo Germont (from La traviata) and Donizetti’s Nemorino (from L’elisir d’amore). I’m keen to see (and hear) him tackle meatier sonic things; I want to hear his Riccardo, Macduff, Adorno live, as well as his Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, because I think Pirgu’s vocally come to a place where he not only can do it, but he should. With a dashing, old-school stage presence and remarkable vocal heft and flexibility, Pirgu is a tenor to watch, follow, carefully listen to. 

Despite his bold, ballsy approach, Pirgu has been careful in choosing his roles. His move into French opera has been watchful, with past appearances in Cyrano de Bergerac, Roméo et Juliette and Werther; he closes out 2019 with a role debut as Gounod’s Faust with Opera Australia, a role he’ll be performing again in Zürich in May. His next performance is in La bohème at L.A. Opera on Saturday (September 14th) – he sings the main role of Rodolfo in the Komische Oper Berlin production – before singing Don José in Carmen at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Next year he’ll be tackling his very first Lensky in Teatro dell’Opera di Roma production of Eugene Onegin under the baton of James Conlon, with whom he has worked many times, and with whom he is currently working in Los Angeles. All of this bodes well for a tenor whose voice is exploring intriguing and beautiful possibilities.

We recently spoke about the challenges and joys of new and old productions, his thoughts on the pressures singers face within the digital realm, and why having the right conductor makes all the difference.

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In Idomeneo (Styriarte Festival Graz 2008)

You’ve worked with a variety of directors, some of whom take modern approaches, others the so-called “traditional” approach. Does either approach affect you creatively? I saw the Damiano Michieletto production of Rigoletto in Amsterdam and thought it really captured what that opera is all about.

It was very intelligent, that production. I agree that people say, “Oh but it’s not the real story!” or “It’s not the way it usually is!” but… a new director who wants to say something, what he can do? He just has to experiment like this in an intelligent way, to suggest that the opera is not just one thing – it can be another idea, it can be another thought of what the story can be. I don’t like to say that I like old-fashioned or Regie or whatever, for me it’s just a case of asking, is it intelligent or not? Is it beautiful or not? And the answers depend on if the director is prepared to show something to the public. I’ve worked with both styles. When I did Don Giovanni with Zeffirelli in Verona it was this massive wonderful production with original costumes it was amazing; the colors of that production and the costumes, it put you in this old-world epoque.

But this Rigoletto from Michieletto… and the one I did in Zurich with Tatjana Gürbaca: she just had a table and we went up and down and around it. There was just one big table in the middle. It was difficult to do. It showed me the directors have ideas. You can transmit it to the singer and we can do our best to give the best to the public, but if the idea doesn’t come through, then it doesn’t matter if it’s old-fashioned or if it’s a new production – it’s always the same: it doesn’t have success. People today are not stupid; they see television, musicals, online. And in the opera world, if the production involves everybody in the overall idea, of course they have a wonderful experience. And that’s the case with Barrie Kosky’s production of La bohème – it’s between people, it’s not just showing costumes or stage design. 

It underlines the human drama.

Yes. 

You mentioned the competition with other media, and I wonder about digital influence. Some singers have told me the livestreams and HD broadcasts add another layer of pressure; one singer said he felt he was competing with Hollywood.

Today it’s important to look good. It’s our society. It’s not anymore about us, it’s about looking good, dressing well, so people … it’s a bit superficial – may I say that it is, yes. Sometimes a cover of a magazine is more important than a live performance, so you’re spending hours and hours and months in rehearsal, but with the cover on a magazine it doesn’t matter, it’s more important to have that image, than the real world. In the opera world, that doesn’t always work because we have direct feedback from the public; if you sing well, they applaud and if not, they don’t. So we have to be careful. The image has become very important and it’s why a lot of opera stars publishing pictures of what they drink and eat and how they dress, because they know the public now has changed, and is more like, “Okay, let’s see what the soprano is wearing at the party.” I’m sorry, for me it’s a bit superficial, but I know it is also the reality today. 

stage opera music singer

In Werther, New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2019.

You mentioned audiences applauding or not, but they vary greatly, being wildly different between North America, Germany, Australia and Greece, for instance. Every audience you perform for will be different based on cultural awareness, exposure, expectations. What’s that like to deal with as an artist?

It’s not easy. In Italy and Spain they want to hear the voice first. If you’re a good actor, okay, it’s a plus, if you have stage presence, that’s okay too, but they want to hear voices, they want to hear: can you sing or not? And other parts of the world they’re more focused on acting and performance – it isn’t solely about singing. So it’s difficult to know what the public wants. I’m more concerned to sing in Italy, for example, because I know they will judge how I sing. Of course if you act very well it’s a plus in your interpretation but for them it’s important how you sing, the sound of your legato. I’m not saying for London or Amsterdam it’s not important, but they want to see a show; they see the whole performance differently. They go to the theatre to see the opera; they don’t go to see Pavarotti or Callas only. Whereas Italians will go for a specific singer. They want to enjoy that. So it’s different. The culture in Japan and other countries in Asia, they’re very nice and very silent, and really listening. You don’t understand if they like it at all until the very end when they do huge applause; they don’t want to disturb your performance.

Musician friends of mine who’s toured there have noted that the quality of listening from audiences in Japan and Korea is incredibly high; that can be both great and nerve-racking.

Yes, it is. And the lines after the concerts are huge! You may have sung a three-hour opera but people are willing to wait an hour or two for an autograph or at a CD signing. It’s a different culture. You have to be prepared. 

That preparedness has shown itself in your careful choice of repertoire over the past while. What has it been like to explore, and where do you want to go with French and Italian work?

I’m enjoying my lyric repertoire right now, i have the feeling the voice is stable in that repertoire and every time I do it I’m getting better and better. It gets good feedback too. I’d like to do both French and Italian repertoire for as long as possible – first, because i like it, and second, because it’s the healthy thing to do. You keep going when you have wonderful results. So why not? I will not move to other big repertoire – I’ve always been careful about moving around with rep – but I’ll keep doing it too. It’s the only way I know, and it’s what gives me success, so why change?

Within that repertoire, your version of “È la solita storia del pastore” at Wigmore Hall was really special. Would you do more? 

I think I will be doing more this year. It depends how you book yourself and if you have a new program and … it depends. It’s time now to do a series of concerts, I am thinking that, it’s just a question of timing. It takes all of time and it’s a lot of stress for a singer to do a recital series around the world. You sing a lot of arias and you get tired very easily.

But I would imagine there’s something satisfying about it artistically that is different than being in an opera.

Yes, it’s a different mentality of singing. You need to have stamina to last through all these arias! You sing more than ten or twelve of them, not including encores. You have to be prepared, and you need a lot of stamina. It depends on the repertoire of course – between lieder and arias, it’s a different scale entirely.

And sometimes that scale involves comparisons. There have been comparisons between your voice and Di Stefano, for instance.

It’s very human – when (Tito) Schipa was singing people would say, “Oh, Del Monaco is better, or Corelli.” It’s human to compare. But the thing is, if you are god in our business, there’s a reason you’re working. Nobody gives you anything for nothing in this business, especially the public.

Conlon Pirgu singer conductor

With conductor James Conlon.

Chemistry powers so much in the industry too. What kind of a difference does it make to have that quality with a conductor? 

I’ve worked a Abbado, Muti, Harnoncourt, all of whom are completely different, but because I was a violinist before, it made it much easier to understand what they wanted. The conductors can treat the singers sometimes like an orchestra, not all the way, and not all of them have the knowledge of the singing, they read the score and say, “Okay, you have to sing what’s in the score,” and then you have some conductors who aren’t listening to the singers, and a lot of conductors who do listen to the singers, down to the last second. So it depends who you have in front of you, and it depends of course on how good those conductors are, but all the legendary conductors have to spend a lot of time studying singing, piano, violin, orchestration — they’re full with knowledge, so it’s odd if they come to singers unprepared. I’ve been blessed to work with so many great ones, and I’ve learned a lot about music. The most important thing is to be patient, and to listen, not to say something, because always you will learn something with them. Being an artist means there’s a lot of energy inside us, and you have to deal with that, it’s part of your business, but don’t forget that you’re a human being; that helps a lot in terms of other relationships in the theatre.

Writing, Evolution, And The Pleasure Of Discovery

thoth tjaj scribe god ancient egypt

The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon. (New Kingdom, late 18th Dynasty, Amenophis III (?), 1388-1351 BC; collection of Neues Museum Berlin)

As some of my readers may know, the past year has seen a gradual shift away from formal journalism and toward more creative, personally fulfilling arenas. The precise nature of such a destination has yet to manifest or clarify itself, but, trusting the path, as they say, often brings the most important discoveries, whether we like them or not. Liking, much less being comfortable, isn’t so much the point, but evolving is.

One stage in that evolution has been taking a conscious step away from writing reviews. In Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant 2012 New Yorker essay about critics, he notes that “(t)he role of the critic […] is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” Mendelsohn, Editor at Large of the New York Review of Books, writes with engaging specificity about how the work of certain critics from his youth inspired his curiosity: “I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments. ” We all find our own in-roads when it comes to culture: the influence of people we are raised by; the big and small events we experience as children; the sounds and sights and smells and surfaces we absorb intellectually, emotionally, spiritually through the various facets that carry us into and through adulthood. Social influence, of course, has taken on a life of its own within the digital age, with the culture of “like” and “favorite” occasionally (Mendelsohn might argue too often) taking the place meaningful criticism might have occupied in the past. There’s also the pervasive (and now normalized) trinity of programming, pageviews, and promotion that have become sticky symbols of, among other things, the contemporary force of clickbait. A music historian friend of mine refuses to hit “like” on most things he sees on Facebook, whether he truly enjoys such posts or not, his reasoning that inspiration, and personal taste for that matter (something Mendelsohn mentions frequently), shouldn’t be reduced to algorithmic slavery. He has a point.

All of which is to say, criticism still matters, but instead of writing reviews myself, I’m going to help others do it. As of January 2020, I’ll be part of the Emerging Arts Critics panel, a Canada-based program that aims to mentor the next generation of culture writers in partnership with a variety of  Toronto-based media and arts institutions including Opera Canada magazine (to which I am a frequent contributor) and the Canadian Opera Company. I may no longer review opera, but I am happy to be teaching the next generation. I’m equally happy to point out interesting figures whose work, while uncritical, inspires that all-important cultural curiosity, while providing fun bursts of inspiration and education; classical music writer and enthusiast Jari Kallio is one of those people. Known to the online classical community for his deep knowledge and refreshing lack of pretension, the well-travelled Finn documents what he sees, listens to, and studies at regular intervals. His posts aren’t intended to provoke reactivity (namely those 21st century digital diseases like hate-likes or juvenile jealousies) but are meant to inspire and educate, and sometimes entertain too.

salonen score

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s score for Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo: Jari Kallio

It would be easy to dismiss Jari as a cheerleader. When he likes something (or someone), it is obvious. He does not make a secret of his favorites, but in an age where the fandom of Anna Netrebko is loud and boisterous, it’s nice to see that spirit being so vigorously applied to artists like Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and Jörg Widmann. Having worked as a teacher of psychology and philosophy for over two decades in pre-university studies for students sixteen to nineteen in Finland, Jari has a natural ability to be as direct with his language as he is clear in his contextualizing. Well-versed in music new and old, he considers score-reading to be a natural extension of his ever-unfolding education as well as an expression of his intense creative curiosity. Those qualities lend him an authority which can often be seen in his online exchanges with fellow music lovers, ones which are wonderfully free of patronizing and condescension, and offer in-roads for those new to classical music. Clearly aware of the culture of the internet, his Twitter and Instagram feeds regularly feature playful comments and humorous shots of both himself and his cat, Nono (yes, named after the Italian composer). If one wants to apply the term “blogger,” I suppose one could, but the term feels somehow too small for his wide-ranging curiosities, and too limiting for his talents. He’s not a singular figure for his cultural pursuits, but he is one of the most earthy in their expression.

Our conversation here marks the first of what I hope will become regular exchanges with digitally-savvy classical music writers. There’s value, and some manner of delight, in conversing with such ambassadors and educators in a rapidly-changing art form.  And so, to my original point, that making a conscious choice to change one’s path without knowing the final destination isn’t meant to always be a comfortable process. Indeed. Jari’s posts sometimes provoke sharp stabs of shrieking panic (mainly of not knowing nearly enough about our shared passion) but it’s a reaction softened by a calm, more sustained voice whispering that it’s never too late to learn; the willingness is all. Back in June, Jari and I enjoyed a lovely, wide-ranging chat – about score reading, contemporary composers, the joys of attending rehearsals, and the connection between Star Wars and Sibelius. Enjoy.

Photo courtesy Jari Kallio.

Do you find your music passion seeps into your teaching life? I’ve introduced things like leitmotifs within a project-specific context, so students can then apply that concept. 

Yes, I do that too! For example, in psychology there are so many things you can work out through pieces of art and music, so basically that’s an endless source for cases and examples and allegories…

… and concepts, and inspiring people to understand things and experience things in a new way… 

Exactly.

Speaking of new ways, you found your own path into music, yes? 

I didn’t go to a conservatory but I took piano lessons for three or four years, and when I studied psychology as a major, I did some musicology and history of music as a second subject. From my teens is when it all got started. I’m from a working-class family, and there’s musicality in my family, but it comes from my father’s side. My grandfather was quite a good amateur player – he had a good ear. He could pick out tunes from the radio and play them; he was really good at it. My father had some of that too, but he played very little, and so in their world, there wasn’t a thing like music education; yes, it would’ve been available, but it was something rather unknown to them. 

Jari Kallio, scores, Bärenreiter, publishing, music, coffee, perusal

Photo: Jari Kallio

That sounds a lot like my mother; she came from a working-class background as well and only seemed to know the Conservatory as it related to my yearly piano exams. 

Exactly! I had very few early influences though, apart from school. In my first year at school in Finland – we start school at the age of seven – I remember our city orchestra, which was a small, 25-piece orchestra, paid a visit to our school. That was the first time I’d heard an orchestra live. They played some orchestral music, and the only piece I remember from that is Sibelius, his Karelia music, the intermezzo. It was such a huge thing to hear, and that’s the early thing which got me curious. And then, being of my generation, which is the Star Wars generation, I of course picked up John Williams’s music for the film, which was actually the first thing I had on a physical record. In my teens I suddenly started discovering more, and at some point I just felt I had to try to play something, so I did a couple of years of piano lessons and soon realized that I’m not much of a player. That never bothered me because I learned to read music and got kind of an understanding of how music works, performance-wise, which I think was very important. I picked up my first scores when I was about eighteen or nineteen.

What inspired you to delve into scores as a non-musician?

I was really curious to see how the music works, what happens on the page, how does it look? It was the fascination of seeing scores at the conductor’s podium and being really interested in seeing what they see, what do they look at, what is the source? So at first it was simply curiosity, and kind of like, can I read through it? Can I follow a performance from it? It was a challenge.

At the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with the score for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, June 2018. Photo: Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager, Digital Communications, London Symphony Orchestra

What was the first score you bought?

I bought cheap editions of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s “La Mer.” In Helsinki, there’s a music shop that sells records and scores and they had these score on sale, and I went there with what little student money I had back then and I found these two, and I thought they were brilliant.

How many do you have now?

I haven’t really counted them, but I’d say something like 200 to 250 or so.

You take a particular interest in new music.

Finland has a great scene for contemporary music and not just special ensembles but for large orchestras. They all do it – they’ve been doing it for a very long time. It’s something really organic, it’s not just (orchestras) commissioning short pieces and force-feeding the audience; it’s an essential part of the programming. And interestingly, in Helsinki for example, many of the concerts that feature new music sell really well and really fast. They are very often the first concert that are sold out, which is really interesting. 

Why do you think that is? 

I think in a sense, it originally comes from the fact that the first Finnish orchestras were established in the late 19th century; from early on they played music like Sibelius and all the Finnish composers. (Orchestras and composers) were part of the Finnish independence movement at the time, so it became a natural part of our culture. Also, because we are here at the border of Europe, we don’t have such a long (classical) tradition; the first Finnish orchestra of music comes from the latter half of the 19th century. We weren’t burdened by tradition, so to speak, and that liberated the programming, which is a great thing. Many (living Finnish composers) are definitely well known outside Finland – Salonen and Saariaho and Sebastian Fagerlund, for example. There are really so many great new composers

What sorts of things do you think new music provides the listener? 

It might sound clichéd, but the first thing that pops into my mind is that it gives purpose, in the sense of discovery. It’s really hard to express in words, but especially with new music, I think it’s the pleasure of discovery. When you listen to a lot of music, you start to get the idea that there are sort of these black areas on the map – between styles, between pieces, these undiscovered territories – and then you hear something somebody has written, and it goes to that undiscovered territory. You hear something which is totally new, which totally opens a new view. That, in a sense, is one of the most rewarding things. And also with the older repertoire, I mean, the pleasure of music is that you can perform the same piece of music a thousand times differently and it can be fresh and new every time. This season I heard St. John Passion in Berlin, dramatized by Peter Sellars and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and it showed totally different aspects to a classic piece. I think, if you get the impression that, “this is the most important thing at this precise moment, the thing I want to focus on…” then that’s a good concert. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen during rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera, spring 2019. Photo: Jari Kallio

Yet you also delve into rehearsal work as well; your behind-the-scenes report on Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera with Salonen, for example, were fascinating. 

That was a lot of fun to do, to spend two weeks there. I’ll be covering the time when Salonen starts his first Ring Cycle at the Finnish National Opera – they’re doing Das Rheingold in August – and I have a couple of other projects in mind. For instance, Rattle is doing Idomeneo at the Staatsoper Berlin, so I might try to cover that. Obviously, it’s an important thing to review concerts, but it’s been done for ages. I know this might sound a bit pompous, but in a sense, I think that a critic (preserves) a memory – he or she documents something in the past…

… and evaluates it within various contexts for the present.

Usually yes! But I think it’s very important that the wider public understands how a performance is put together. What does it take? What is all the hard work done before the performance? This is so people can truly appreciate and understand how the thing is built. And of course, on a personal level, the best way to learn is to go to rehearsals and follow them and really try to get a hold of the thing.

From the very few I’ve attended, I find I re-discover, re-evaluate – and explore entirely new things as well. I’d love to attend more rehearsals.

With more experience you gain more levels of listening. What you hear in rehearsals – the process of creating music – is really the most rewarding part. Sometimes I have the feeling after attending a series of rehearsals I could easily skip the concert itself! I think one of highest fascinating and rewarding things was last year in January, when I attended a series of rehearsals by the LSO and Simon Rattle; they were doing the Berg Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust as soloist. Within the three days I heard that piece, they played it something like four or five times through, and worked on it and worked on it. I had known the piece for roughly twenty years or something, but hearing it that way was really amazing. 

Nono the cat. Photo: Jari Kallio

It often feels as if you provide a way into sometimes challenging pieces and composers through your updates on these processes, demystifying what is, for many, a rather daunting thing.

I hope so – that’s the point, really! When I started my writing career nineteen years ago, I worked as a full-time, jack-of-all-trades journalist for a year, and of course initially you are really excited to see your work in print, like “WOW!” But as time goes by, that feeling wears off and you really start to think about the most important thing: readers, the public. You are writing for someone, not just to please yourself. You have to think: what’s the point of doing this? What do I want to say and emphasize? If somebody reads my stuff, and if they are in some way inspired or informed, I’m really happy and pleased. 

Change the Channel

Photo by Darryl Block

Attending and writing about opera on a regular basis, it becomes all too easy to take space for granted. The setting becomes almost secondary: the vast space of an auditorium, the plush nape of seats, the hushed, reverential silence during a performance. If you’re used to going to the opera, these are elements you don’t consider too deeply, if at all.

And yet, Against the Grain wants you to think, and feel, and reassess — and to approach opera in a whole new way. The Toronto-based independent company has built an acclaimed reputation on producing opera in unusual spaces; La Boheme took place in a bar, Don Giovanni was staged in an old theatre set up as a wedding reception, and now, Cosi fan tutte takes place in a television studio. Why should this matter? Well, for those of you who may never consider going to the opera, who find its formalities daunting, who feel it has “nothing for them,” AtG aims to make you re-think.

For opera fans like me, entering Studio 42 at the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s so-called “mothership” building in Toronto for A Little Too Cozy (AtG’s updated title for Mozart’s 1790 opera) was a strange if exhilarating experience — there’s a thrill of the new combined with a slight anxiety over gimmickry, and how much the old will be incorporated without being arch. While many directors approach operatic works with an attitude approaching holiness, some new productions are also occasionally done with an art-for-capital-A-art’s-sake approach. There’s still a widely held perception (one not completely incorrect) that curiosity, mischief and whimsy are missing in the opera world; Joel Ivany (who is AtG’s Artistic Director) keeps the proper reverence for the music (as he has in all his past works) but loses the poe-faced seriousness which opera neophytes might perceive comes with the territory, instead injecting a playfulness into the proceedings that is entirely fresh and creative.

Photo by Darryl Block

A Little Too Cozy is presented as a reality TV dating series, with each of the work’s characters as contestants vying to win love, and, it would seem, a measure of fame and validation. Felicity (soprano Shantelle Przybylo), Fernando (tenor Aaron Sheppard), Dora (mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb) and Elmo (baritone Clarence Frazer) perform with phones in-hand, delivering punchy, swear-word-laden songs dressed in swishy club clobber, with sleazy Donald L. Fonzo (Cairan Ryan) hosting the proceedings and randy Despina handing the show’s talent relations. The latter two characters are, in the Mozart original, somewhat “controllers” of the situation, and the adaptation of them here, with more than a frisson of underlying sexual tension extant, makes perfect, zesty sense. What also makes this transposition work for the opera crowd is Ivany’s keen awareness of the source material being somewhat… silly, shall we say. In using a popular, mainstream medium to both mock and milk it at once, Ivany creates a foundation that is at once satisfying to opera regulars and enlivening to newbies.

After all,  Cosi fan tutte (which translates roughly as “women are like that”) is not exactly what I’d call a work of great narrative genius; some of us (myself included) find the plot (which revolves around couples testing one another’s affections) rather unsatisfying, if not entirely asinine. But, by using a recognizable cultural outlet that has gained particular traction in the last decade-plus,  Ivany betrays a deep awareness of both the power of media and the power of music, and marries them in a way that is entirely beguiling and extremely familiar. A Little Too Cozy is smart and fun and modern — it’s also very much opera. More fully than in past productions, Ivany and the AtG team here heartily embraced old and new, forging a sexy, sassy mix that will (and does) appeal to the social media set.

And so it was, the audience was reminded of related hashtags (#TeamDora, etc) and encouraged to use cell phones during the production. The immersive taping experience was deepened with “commercial” breaks, which allowed Ivany’s adapted libretto the opportunity to cleverly utilize and explore the re-imagined recitatives and arias (translated into English and matched to the proceedings) that provided further characterization and insight. It would be merely clever if it wasn’t also involving, entertaining, and deeply respectful to its source material.

Photo by Darryl Block

Perhaps AtG’s next project should be called, “So, You Think You Hate Opera” — I’d bet by the end of the night a few hearts and minds would be changed. Never mind the plush seats, here’s a beer and Twitter — sit back and enjoy. Opera can, and should be, for everyone.

Bang Bang Shoot Post

Do you use Instagram? Do you love it? Hate it?

There’s been a lot of talk about the mobile app recently. A reporter friend sung its wonders last summer; her prescient enthusiasm anticipated Instagram’s huge dent in public consciousness over the last few months.  The mobile app was bought by Facebook for a big price tag; it was the subject of Jon Stewart’s acerbic wit; it’s been featured on the PBS Idea Channel (above); it’s inspired a snarky (and very funny) parody video of its features; it’s even made the pages of the Grey Old Lady. Oh, and  I recently did a feature on a prolific (and dedicated) IG user. What’s the big deal?

Part of it seems to be the temporal nature of the app; it captures moments within a certain frame of time, with  filters reflecting users’ moods and visual ideas around events. It’s temporal, with a leaning toward the personal, taking the best bits of social media and putting them within a visual interface. Thus, it’s become a beautiful complement to reporters’ toolkits. For evidence, check out WSJ’s impressive collection of Occupy Wall Street Instagram shots. Photojournalist Richard Koci Hernandez sees it as a game-changer. It was used for New York Fashion Week. Plenty of people – journalists and non-journalists alike – use it as a kind of blogging shorthand for what they see around them. Plenty don’t, however, and in a neat twist of irony, they’ve used other social media outlets (particularly Twitter) to air their displeasure. Is Instagram a threat to traditional photojournalists? To journalists overall?

The line between reporting and art feels perilously thin when considering the  potential of the app. I happen to like it for on-the-go shots of my daily life, though I’m careful to avoid the “this is what I ate  for breakfast” mundanity that seems to dominate so much social media photo-sharing. As a former photographer who worked in (and occasionally misses) film, I find Instagram’s range of “vintage” filters more amusing than annoying. Still, there’s something to be said for the tactile, and more than once, I’ve found myself drawing (or wanting to draw) some of the shots I come across on my daily Instagram look-throughs. Perhaps that’s the basic beauty of the app: it embraces the sharp, thorny terrain of the present, while snuggling with the soft, messy sheets of yesteryear. It’s Now, and Then, and Maybe, all at once.

Download, Upload, Revolution

There was something about Rocky Dawuni’s thought about avoiding “preachiness” in Part 1 of this exchange that hit me as both amusing and wise; there are few things more annoying or off-putting than pure polemic in a song. I like a bit of poetry throw in for good measure -that’s just a personal taste thing.

But the busy singer-songwriter hit on something profound, political, and poetic when he wrote a song called “Download This Revolution“. Though he could’ve never anticipated the way social media would be used in Egypt to oust a President, the song shows a clear understanding of the ways technology is influencing people’s lives, particularly within his home country of Ghana. There’s a clever taunt -perhaps a sly commentary -on the state of modern culture and the power of people’s politics, too, as Rocky smoothly croons “upload this / download this… ” -as if sharing information, the miniscule pieces of data that come together across wires and networks and form “likes” and groups and tweets, is this generation’s sit-in, march, loud chant, and noisy protest. People can take to their mobiles or keyboards, and… change the world. At least sometimes.

Like the rest of the songs on Hymns For The Rebel Soul (Aquarius), it’s thought-provoking, groovy, and wise, all at once. The NAACP Image Awards happen tonight, and Rocky’s nominated for Outstanding World Album. We recently traded ideas about the themes in his work, tackling difficult subject matter, and integrating technology within organic musical sounds.

What’s the theme of Hymns For The Rebel Soul?

The theme of this album was to create an inspirational collection of songs that offered a spiritual and melodic snapshot of various cultures around the world. The album reflects on themes ranging from love, life, God and peace beyond war.

What’s your method for integrating soul and real-world issues? “Jerusalem” is a beautiful example of this integration: it tells a story of a conflicted region but is very soulful and poetic at the same time. How difficult was this song to do?

I basically submit to the feel and vision of the song and let it lead me to its final manifestation. This method allows me to combine the real world issues with soul. It’ s basically letting myself be inspired by my own unique observation. “Jerusalem” was written from the first wave of inspiration when I set my foot in the Holy City. There was a certain mysterious beauty about this place that I felt made it the spiritual crossroads for major religious faiths but elusively out of reach for any particular faith to possess. Its divinity lies within its power to provide spiritual refuge to all those willing to overcome their prejudice and submit to its magic…I opened my he art to it and the song came pouring out. It was a very special and effortless moment .

“Download This Revolution” is a fascinating start to the Hymns For The Rebel Soul: it addresses a technological bridge between change, access, and art. Why was it was important to open the album with it?

The song represents our current times so it was an appropriate tone setting song for the album. We are the first generation of the ongoing internet revolution and “Download the Revolution” touches on the issue of equalization of the playing field : the emergence of an age where technology will fuel drastic social changes. The old doors that used to keep mass consciousness from coming into the mainstream will be circumvented while outdated and oppressive political systems fall to the tech-fueled people’s revolution.

I believe there is already evidence of this in the current internet-inspired democratic movements sweeping across Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the world. The thing about change is that it can be either positive or negative. The song calls for the forces of good to seize the moment and take charge of all the mechanisms of this transformation.


How challenging is it to integrate traditional organic sounds with electronic ones?

Well personally I believe having the options of both approaches gives me flexibility to be creative and push boundaries. Live instrumentation definitely bring s that organic feel to music and it’s my first approach before I mix electronic sounds . Some songs work better when you approach them from the electronic perspective as well.

In the long run it all boils down to the artist and their objective. Organic sounds never get outdated so I personally use that as the basis for my creations.

If you could work with any artist, who would it be, and why?

It will be Lauryn Hill because her songs have such amazing emotional and spiritual depth!

Painted portrait of Rocky Dawuni (top) by John Robertson, from his blog What Art Did He Make Today?

Rocky’s Hymn

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art and issues, and where the two -if the two -should intersect. Some say no, others say yes. I’m on the fence about whether the arts can and should, to quote a favorite musical, “take on the world’s greatest problems, from war to pollution / no hope of solution” -but I keep asking, could culture possibly provide one? Not a day goes by that I don’t happily stumble across one organization or another doing good in blending arts and social issues. And yet, I’m left feeling curiously powerless myself most days, wondering why I should have to choose between twin passions and asking if there might be a larger role in bridging the two through 2011.

Rocky Dawuni might have a few answers, for me, and for the many others grappling the arts/issues divide -because he doesn’t see a divide at all. The Ghana-born singer-songwriter’s 2010 release Hymns For The Rebel Soul (his fifth album) seamlessly, seemingly-effortlessly blends the two, with reggae-and-dance-tinged music delivering a one-two punch of sage wisdom, righteous rage, and ultimately, tuneful grace. Dawuni especially references the work of Bob Marley (to whom he’s been compared) and Peter Tosh, artists who, like him, blended the world of art with the world of the personal with … the world.

Rocky caught mainstream attention when he recorded a version of Bob Marley’s “No More Trouble” for Playing For Change in 2009 with a raft of talented international musicians, including the Oneness Choir from India, Jason Tamba from Congo, David Broza from Israel, and… oh yes, one Bono Vox from Ireland (aka Bono). The original’s moody, haunting feel gets a global makeover, as artists cross borders mental, spiritual, physical, and even creative to form something altogether more powerful than any collaboration project might suggest. This past summer, Rocky’s bouncy tune “African Reggae Fever” became “African Soccer Fever” and was featured on the FIFA World Cup 2010 soundtrack alongside tracks from Baaba Maal, Florence and the Machine, and Michael Franti. The tune also became the official song for the FIFA World Cup 2010 video game. Put it on as a dare to anyone who says they can’t dance; within 30 seconds, I guarantee you, they’ll be pogoing on the lino, cutting up a rug, and doing the watusi like no one’s business.

Alas, I missed meeting Rocky when he was in Toronto last fall Rocky to be part of the We Day event and concert, organized by Free The Children. But I’ve no doubt he rocked the worlds of the 18,000 students who were present. 2010 was a busy year indeed: months before We Day, he was part of the Vatican-sponsored JOSPfest, and later on, he played the well-regarded Freedom Fest in San Diego. 2011 is shaping up to be busy too; at the end of March he’s off to Kenya for Songambele 2011, put on by NGO March Forth Kenya Kids. He’s on the Board of Advisors for Jammin Java Corporation. In July he’ll be playing the Hollywood Bowl as part of radio station KCRW‘s Global Soul show -with none other than Stevie Wonder.

Now, you’d think a guy this busy wouldn’t have time for social media. You’d be wrong. Throughout the tours, appearances, and recording sessions, Rocky’s maintained an active online presence that positively (and I mean that in a true sense) brims with inspiration and excitement. It’s heartening to see his regular tweets & Facebook updates -not only is he excited about music, he’s excited about meeting people, hearing cool new sounds, exchanging ideas. Rock is excited about life, and it shows. When I interviewed him last summer for a morning radio show in Toronto, he was deep in the throes of football fandom, cheering on his home team as he fielded non-stop calls from friends and relatives. This is a man who deeply understands the meaning of “joie de vivre” and harnesses that optimism for a greater good.

That good was recognized with a prestigious nomination; Rocky’s up for the Outstanding World Album at this year’s NAACP Image Awards, which happen tomorrow night in Los Angeles. The first part of our conversation, below, features his ideas on the responsibilities of the artist, the dangers of preaching in music, and how much he feels like a spokesman for contemporary issues affecting everyday Ghanians.

How much do you think musicians should feature social issues in their work?

Well, I think every artist has the right to express whatever they feel their art truly represents. When it comes to social issues, every additional voice can always be useful. The platform that a musician acquires is due to the projection and support of the public so I believe the artist has a moral obligation to wield this with a spirit of humility, gratitude and servitude. It also goes a long way when you give back.The art attains transcendence and realness.

In terms of music and politics, there is definitely a link. Whenever the music ventures to represent the everyday aspirations of people it intersects with everyday politics. In Africa most of us have a bigger responsibility to use the medium to articulate political issues and bring them to the fore of social discussions.

How much do you feel a responsibility to include social issues in your work in particular?

Growing up in Ghana, social issues are a constant part of everyday reality. My music strives to project these issues in a way that will inspire action among my audience.

I think it ‘s the core intent of my musical mission but the important thing is to always maintain a balance so as to avoid blatant preachiness.

How much did the Playing For Change collaboration change your career?

It definitely did, in so many ways. It gave me great exposure and also showed the power of music to cross all boundaries and nationalities.

Do you ever get bothered by outside perceptions about Africa?

On occasions yes I do get bothered. For example, when you meet folks who believe they have it all figured out about Africa solely on the western perspective without any knowledge of the cultural contexts.

Africa’s history is very complicated . The root causes of most current political and social challenges can be traced all the way to its history of slavery, tribalism, colonialism and modern schisms. The objective of my music and my work is to project the new Africa: an Africa whose greatness will be restored by a renewed engagement and reconnection with the diaspora . This new Africa will embrace all the promise of modern technologies and democracy while upholding its cultural identity.

Although the current political climate is rife with turmoil and unprecedented economic issues, I am part of an emerging conscious tech-savy intellectual generation who are rising in its wake.

How much do you feel like a spokesman for Ghana?

Well, it comes with the territory. There are so many great things to say about my country in terms of its functioning democracy and freedom of press. Ghana’s long term stability has also projected it as a shining example on the continent.

As a musician on the international stage, I always find myself in many instances playing the role of its spokesperson. It’s a role I always welcome!
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Part two of my conversation with Rocky Dawuni tomorrow, in anticipation of the NAACP Image Awards. We’ll be focusing on some of the tunes featured on “Hymns for the Rebel Soul” and Rocky’s methods of integrating soulful sounds and real-world issues.

Sweet Home NYC

Peeking out the tiny window as the airplane made its way into Newark International Airport, one thought struck me: ew, brown. A large brown haze hung over the New York skyline. Yet another thought: get used to it. Buck up.

As I knew would happen, I wanted to do everything the minute I left the airplane. Going at near-sprint speed through Penn Station with baggage in tow, I quickly hailed a cab and… boom, there I was, in the thick of Big Apple traffic. Traces of the big December snowstorm were still in evidence, with curbs and corners white and icy. People were everywhere. The noise, colour, lights, and textures were a lot to take in, even as I tried to place where I was and my cab driver tried to figure out the best way to get me to my destination in Soho.
After grabbing a bite at the handily-close Dean and Deluca (ridiculous, delicious, nutritious), I made the predictable visit up to Times Square, turning onto 44th Street to visit the much-loved Belasco Theater. It was there, in 1995, that a good friend and I spent many breathless hours sighing and marveling at Ralph Fiennes’ Tony-winning performance of Hamlet. Directed by the super-fab (and super-nice, as I recall) Jonathan Kent, the show remains a favorite production of a very famous play. My friend and I got up to much mischief that hot July. Not visiting the area feels like sacrilege. I go to pay homage to a time, a place, to ghosts still very much alive.

A worker at the theater gave me a small smile as I clicked a photo outside. I always think people who work at old theaters during active shows must realize they’re working in an environment where people have memories -not just the theater crew and cast, but the audience, or even non-audience. Buildings have ghosts. I heard the Belasco had a real one. Hmmm. All the old theaters up around Times Square feel haunted by past voices, spoken onstage and off, and by the shenanigans that occur in any kind of creative pressure-cooker environment. They’re not the kind of ghosts I fear so much as appreciate. I’m going to BAM tonight to see the Abbey Theatre’s production of Borkman featuring Alan Rickman. More voices and faces from long ago and/or near-and-present? Probably. Sensing that kind of thing adds so much to the experience of live performance.
It was both a past, a present, and a very determined future I sensed colliding at lastnight’s genius performance at Zinc Bar, however. Whether it was design or chance that allowed this to happen I cannot say, but I’m grateful for this so-called “New York moment” nonetheless. The last-minute set, featuring super-musician Eric Lewis, was only announced via social media on Sunday; when I read it, I may have shrieked a little bit (only the dawg knows for sure). Lewis is a huge, huge favorite of mine, and this appreciation, bolstered by a music-loving friend’s appreciation of his work, made me go deeper into Lewis’ work and his approach to his art. I’ve seen the videos, heard about the White House performance, and follow the Facebook and Twitter updates. It goes without saying, though, that nothing compares to seeing the real thing, live and up close -especially in a cozy Greenwich Village club that calmly whispers “cool” the minute you walk down the stairs and through the door.

Opening with a raucous, rolling version of Wayne Shorter’s aggressive “Pinocchio“, Lewis, accompanied by the super-talented Ian Travis on bass and Ali Jackson on drums, delivered a performance both astonishing for both its technical virtuosity and emotional resonance. With a range of facial expressions and body signals, Lewis matches his muscular, passionate musical output with expressive physicality that borders on theatrical (in a really good way). Utterly lacking in pretension, Lewis smiled shyly and gave his bandmates equal time to shine. Tellingly, he patiently endured the microphone and sound glitches as he spoke between the (lengthy if enthralling) numbers, telling the enthusiastic audience about the composition of his bouncy original “Puerto Rico“, written in the very location some years ago over “many, many emptying Heinekens one night between 2 and 7am.”
Bouncing between an endearingly lionine sexiness, demonic bug-eyed determination, and toddler-esque wide-mouthed joy, Lewis emanated a vivacious, infectious energy -one that continued (and expanded) even with his invitation to trumpet player Marcus Printup (who was seated in front of me) and saxophone player Karel Ruzsicka Jr. to join him at various points throughout the set. It became a fascinating conversation between instruments and musicians used to blending colors, textures, and timbres with ease.

Lewis’s beautiful interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was given a tasty little spin, as well a grandly sprawling version of Breaking Benjamin’s “The Diary Of Jane.” Lewis beautifully captured the dual nature of Jackson’s paean to sensual humanity; by turns sexy, dreamy, and jauntily rhythmic, he drew out its soul-meets-jazz-meets rock hybrid nature, milking, mocking, and worshipping the creation even in its conception, slowly, slyly sculpting something sonically new, daring, and thrilling. With “The Diary Of Jane”, the former Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra pianist captured the tune’s original emo bite, adding in crunchy piano power chords and aggressive harmonics that were positively symphonic in their sweeping majesty. The term “breathtaking” feels too mild; at times I would notice my mouth hanging open, my hands clutched together, my eyes bugging out. I think I may have drooled at one point. Vanity took a firm backseat in the presence of such gargantuan artistry.
By the time Lewis got to his rock-jazz version of “Sweet Home Alabama” (the evening’s closer), he looked as if he’d run a 10K marathon; with sweat pouring off him and a wide, broad grin, he confidently pounded away on the keys, solo this time, conjuring the soul of Ray Charles, the sass of Jamie Cullum, the cool of Thelonius Monk and the outright rockingness of… Jimmy Page.
What a marriage. What a night. What a bunch of noisy ghosts. What a city.
And there’s more to come, I’m sure.

TED’s My X -Or Not.

The famed TED has come to Toronto -or rather, it did last year, in “X” form. Those who’ve attended Idea City for a while might argue the brainy TED idea arrived in this city a long time ago -but as Dan Jacob pointed out to me in a recent broadcast chat, TEDx Toronto is a free event. Free, if also chosen by committee.

Jacob is the co-founder of TEDx Toronto, happening Thursday. Attendance to the conference is free, but potential attendees had to fill out a questionnaire and prove why they should be there. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of this being any less elite than a hefty price tag, but taking a look at the eclectic roster of speakers, it must be conceded that the event is truly a good-hearted, well-intended celebration of Toronto in all its various shades and angles. Why would you want people there who only know how to draw in one colour (or worse, can’t draw at all?) There’s a poet, a playwright, a CEO, an author, an adventurer… and much more. The frisson of creative, seeming-opposites in a room-full of young, curious people committed to ideological exploration feels like it might produce something… good.

Speaking with Jacob was a fantastic experience, especially since (big reveal) I have attended Idea City in the past, and been invited to a TED in the United States. I’m always intrigued by why people want to jump, feet first, into such a heady (or seemingly-heady) event. The young co-founder was clear about the intentions behind starting TEDx here, and about why the city needed it. I admire his bright-eyed optimism and open embrace of the unknown -I’m sure those qualities have -and will -colour TEDx Toronto.

TEDX Toronto, Two Years On by CateKusti

On the outside, sure these kinds of conferences do seem like a bunch of geeks (or snoots, or hipsters, or all three) talking about SEO and online ventures, and throwing around buzzwords like social engineering and crowdsourcing. Occasionally, they are -but more often, they’re not. And the theme of this year’s TEDx Toronto conference might pull you away from that horn-rimmed/I-pod-toting/American-Apparel-wearing stereotype; it’s called “A Call To Action” -and the breadth of speakers Jacob has lined up feels like a fulfillment of that call. I think Jacob’s answers will surprise and inspire, just like the event itself will for those lucky enough to be going.

For those who aren’t, video from the conference will be posted soon. Hold your TEDs -not your noses. It doesn’t cost anything to get a bigger brain.

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