The lazy, hazy days of summer continue and seem endless, more hazy than lazy for many, and far worse than anything one could have imagined at this time last year. One feels helpless in the face of so much tragedy – and highly discouraged in continuing any form of creative pursuit.
After hours (days, weeks) spent negotiating with various forms of sadness, I’ve found solace, usually temporary if no less rewarding, in old favorites: reading, listening, watching, and lots of cooking. My deep freeze has never been so consistently full, my head similarly filled with novels, names, images, events, ideas, places, and oddly (or not) a renewed sense of creative inspiration. One has to give thanks for these things, and very often, make time for them, as much as for the good people who have spent time and energy in conversation, often over meals, enduring my meandering conversation and offering their own insights, “You need to move” being unquestionably the best.
Sometimes simple things pull one through challenging times, though of course there’s always the risk of those things clearing the ground for more pondering, furrowing of brows, (over)thinking. Perhaps Prince Orlofsky has the best response here…
Striking summer things for me have been wide-ranging and not always joyous (shock shock) but sometimes, just sometimes, they are that, and validating too. A fascinating study published in July 2023 points up the essentially visceral nature of the live experience. Babies between the ages of six and fourteen months were studied in order to examine the effects of music in live and controlled environments. Three groups (one presented with a live show; one with a playback of the show in the same environment; the last with playback at home) were shown an excerpt from The Music Box (a baby opera by artist Bryna Berezowska) at the McMaster University LIVELab, a research facility/concert hall located in Hamilton, Ontario.
The study found that the babies who experienced the live version were far more engaged, with their heart rates even synchronizing. Study co-author Laura Cirelli, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto’s department of psychology, noted that “If there’s something happening that we collectively are engaging with, we’re also connecting with each other. It speaks to the shared experience.” Cirelli also noted that the study reinforced ideas related to socialization. “An itsy bitsy audience: Live performance facilitates infants’ attention and heart rate synchronization” was conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough, the Department of Settlement & Community Services (Toronto), Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and Bucknell University (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania). This study makes me feel a bit less ridiculous about the amount of frustrated arm-waving I did during the first eighteen months or so of the coronavirus pandemic. “Whither will?!” I kept shouting (and writing) at anyone who would listen (read), “Don’t you know the live experience is so very vital to our being human?” It’s nice to see this sense has been confirmed in actual science, although I’m not confident the results will inspire a more intelligent and humane approach to the arts in certain sectors, especially given the precipitous rise of AI technologies.
Technology is only one aspect of the harrowing and thought-provoking article “The Perils and Promises of Penis Enlargement Surgery” by Ava Kofman, a collaboration between The New Yorker and Propublica and published in the former’s July 3, 2023 print edition. Along with admiration for the writer’s professionalism and thoroughness, the work also inspired a contemplation of operas which revolve around body parts – namely Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Shostakovich’s The Nose, itself is based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol. Quite often these operas are staged for laughs even as some – the best ones – feature serious subtexts. An appendage taking on a life of its own is comically surreal (as Barrie Kosky’s Royal Opera House 2016 staging of The Nose emphasized) but, as Kofman’s piece highlights, is just as much a lived reality for those who have undergone the procedure(s) she explores (and in one instance, directly observes). I wonder if an opera will ever be written that tackles the modern fixation around bigger-longer-thicker-stronger and the underlying culture of shame (not to mention social media-driven anxiety) fuelling that fixation. It’s certainly a topic rich in possibility, for writing as much as for staging, though one hopes it wouldn’t stray too far into comedic territory but keep (as Kofman does) a needed tension between the epic and the intimate.
Both the epic and the intimate come together nicely in Presto Music’s new podcast episode (released August 6, 2023) with writer Fiona Maddocks discussing her new book, Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff In Exile (Faber), published in June 2023. Maddocks experienced her own loss in writing this, the death of her husband, artist Tom Phillips. I especially appreciate how, through her discussion with host Paul Thomas, Maddocks emphasizes how Rachmaninoff’s predilection for melodicism and its resultant popular appeal inspired a sniffy attitude toward the composer in some quarters. Heaven forbid people write things that other people can sing, hum, get earworms from – oh, mon Dieu. I plan on reading this book soon and hope to write about it, and more broadly, about the composer and his exile.
2023 marks Rachmaninoff’s 150th birthday, and there are certainly no lack of events to mark the occasion. Conductor Kirill Karabits featured Rachmaninoff in a programme that also included music by his Ukrainian father, the composer Ivan Karabits. The works were on the bill of the first of two BBC Proms concerts presented by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the start of August. Karabits Sr’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, ‘A Musical Gift to Kyiv’ (written in 1981 to mark 1500 years since the founding of Ukraine’s capital) opened a concert that also featured Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.4 and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. BBC Radio has the audio from that concert as well as the third movement (‘Allegro con feroce’) of Ukrainian composer Borys Lyatoshynsky’s immense Symphony No. 3; it will be accessible for the next little while. Recommended; these are musical gems.
Also jewel-like: Nothing Like A Dame, the acclaimed 2018 documentary by Roger Michell featuring four talented, titled artists – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright. I recently viewed this a second time and was quite struck by the tension between the public and private selves which each artist was clearly trying to negotiate as the cameras rolled. One positively cheers when one of them (it may have been Dench) blurts out, “oh fuck off, Roger” in complete exasperation. The prodding to say Very Deep Actressy Things is pointed up when Smith says to an unseen figure, toward the end of the doc, “They’ve told you how old we are, yes? We’re tired…” – even several decades Smith’s junior, the sentiment felt oddly familiar. For all the film’s brilliance at allowing moments of true poignancy to emerge from the many lively conversations, there was a point (perhaps several) where the women clearly wanted the cameras off, and for the performance (such was it was) to end. The expectation of female creatives of all stripes to always be “on” for the public, in whatever fashion and context, can be exhilarating, daunting and yes, tiring. There may be truth to an adage oft-repeated that by a certain age one simply ceases to care what others think – but Nothing Like A Dame was a reminder of the paradoxical nature of that not-caring when one has spent decades on the stage, in front of the camera, negotiating the realities of “small people”, agents, partners, heartbreak, career frustration and immense success. The doc brought to mind the work of writer Jessica DeFino, whose work I have linked here in the past, specifically her brilliant piece, published in May 2023, about Martha Stewart’s Sports Illustrated cover. I have complex and rather conflicting feelings about this myself; I find myself relating to the ‘Dames’ at times, but oh, how I want to manifest Martha’s hot-lady magic (and the money that paid for it) if and when I reach 80.
Quite on another planet, and magically so, is Voyager, by the Munich Opera Horns, released on the Bayerische Staatsorchester Recordings label in July 2023. The 65-minute work offers an array of fascinating and very poetic sounds, with works by contemporary composers (Hans-Jürg Sommer, Konstantia Gourzi, Urs Vierlinger) alongside those of Anton Reicha, Oscar Franz, Pierre-Max Dubois, and Richard Strauss, whose own father Franz Strauss was a virtuoso horn player and principle horn with the Bavarian Court Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper). The album was selected as Gramophone magazine’s September 2023 Editor’s Choice. I recently interviewed the man behind the BSO label, Guido Gärtner, about the whys and wherefores of running an independent label, how it came to be, the benefits of being an independent, recent and not-so-recent DVDs (including Andrea Chenier and Die Tote Stadt, both featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann), and the label’s unique aesthetic – which, with their vibrant tones and large silvery typeface, resemble nothing so much as gem-like, collector’s-edition books. My feature with Guido Gärtner will be published to coincide with the launch of the BSO’s massive European tour, at the beginning of September.
Keeping with the gem-like theme: this recipe for chana masala is delicious, but is also beautiful to look at! Wonderful, easy, filling, and freezes very well indeed, it has become a kind of go-to. I have improvised at various times since first trying this months ago, adding chunks of yellow-fleshed potato, chopped peppers, even (gasp) butter beans, as well as freshly-chopped coriander at the end. The fragrant herbal shards gleamed like little emeralds against the lovely orange, even (hurrah) at defrosting. Ooof, now I am working up an appetite…
… so before I run off to the kitchen, a word of clarity, and of gratitude: this website will be continuing for a little while yet. Thank you to those who have reached out or told me in-person how much you’ve enjoyed the work here and have found some measure of value in what it’s tried to accomplish. The encouragement has had a good (and arguably needed) effect, spurring on a continuance of work, one which may lack the regularity of years past but will makes up for that (I hope) with a palpable commitment to the passion and curiosity which inspired its creation back in 2017. Many heartfelt thanks for your readership – and remember: the “c” word is context. 🙂
Top photo: mine. Please obtain written permission for reuse.
Time, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote in the libretto of Die Rosenkavalier, is a strange thing. It is an observation perhaps most applicable to the world of opera, an industry which continues to endure its fair share of slow-downs, speed-ups, and stand-stills since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. It’s on; it’s off; it’s on; people are sick, the show must go on; it’s half-on, it’s half-off; it’s reduced, it’s streamed; it’s full capacity but “gosh, where is the audience?” is combined with “why aren’t we moving tickets when we made such cool instagram videos?” and “let’s invite some influencers because they’ll bring the sexy young audience we really want!” Questions, queries, and marketing tactics aside, it is risk which is arguably foremost in audience minds: the risk of attending, but also the risk of experiencing something new, or something familiar, but in new ways. Literal risk may well scare some off (or simultaneously attract others), but figurative risk – creative risk – has the power to tempt long-time audiences back in the house, and bring a much-coveted demographic: newcomers. This positive outcome of risk calculation is one some houses are willing to dare, especially as a long, challenging winter draws closer.
Just how the element of risk manifests now is worth considering, especially given the bundles of new works being presented as part of the 2022-2023 season across various houses in North America and Europe. The Royal Opera is presenting a new opera by Oliver Leith about rock singer Kurt Cobain next month, and its entire run is already sold out. Some works, especially those with less of a direct reference to mainstream popular culture, may not be as much in the public consciousness (yet), but do have existing audiences, and do possess the kind of appeal which expands a work’s fanbase, especially to literature and theatre lovers. Case in point: Medea, by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), opens The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-2023 season on September 27th. The 1797 opera is most famous, or at least has a fair measure of fame among opera aficionados, for its live recording featuring conductor Tullio Serafin and soprano Maria Callas from 1957. It has never been presented in The Met’s history – not for lack of trying; in an essay at The Met’s website, Associate Editor Jonathan Minnick details former General Manager Rudolf Bing’s efforts to bring the opera, and Callas, to New York in the 1960s. The Met may well be hoping to make its own kind of history with the new production, directed by David McVicar and featuring Sondra Radvanovsky in the lead. A soprano known for her passionate work with bel canto roles (including Donizetti’s Three Queens – Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux), Medea offers a very different set of shoes indeed, vocally and musically, though it may well be somewhat familiar territory for the level of dramatic intensity it demands. Radvanovsky will be joined by tenor Matthew Polenzani as the faithless Giasone, Janai Brugger as Glauce, Ekaterina Gubanova as Neris, and Michele Pertusi as Creonte. Historically, the Euripidean tragedy (431 BC) has been adapted for stage, television, and film, and has been an object of considerable study with relation to its themes of betrayal, obsession, family, feminism, and murder – and rather interestingly, the work itself (the opera as much as the ancient Greek play) has a keen relationship to time, and the ways in which it speeds up, and/or slows down, at pivotal moments in one woman’s life. Cherubini’s score masterfully captures the drama inherent in such temporal shifts, using a deft combination of voices, strings, and woodwinds, as well as hectic passages and highly considered silences, to bring listeners into Medea’s inner world; it is a world where time, its passing, and all that implies, stretches, stops, and twists amidst a tumult of conflicting emotions. Beethoven, who was a fan, called Cherubini “Europe’s foremost dramatic composer”
Conductor Carlo Rizzi, who leads Medea performances at The Met, has been studying the score for well over a year. The drama of Cherubini’s Medea, as he explains in our chat below, is sewn within Cherubini’s orchestration and is a full partner with the vocal writing. Rizzi and I last spoke in September 2019, as the Italian conductor prepared to open the Canadian Opera Company’s 2019-2020 season with Turandot, an opera he knows so well, he has (like other Puccini operas) conducted it from memory. Medea, of course, is a different thing as much for him as for the cast, including Radvanovsky, with whom he has previously worked. Originally written and presented in French and subsequently translated into German and Italian (frequently; The Met is using the 1909 Italian translation by writer Carlo Zangarini), Cherubini’s version of the mythological vengeance story touches on a myriad of musical styles without entirely conforming to any of them: it isn’t Classical; it isn’t Romantic; it has elements of both. Medea is notable for not only its ferocious lead but for the unique musical language it utilizes to convey drama.
As Rizzi explains in our exchange, the orchestration of Medea is a key factor in conveying that drama. Getting the balance just right demands things you might expect, but multiplied several times over: patience; study; discussion; rehearsals; edits; more edits. The qualities needed for such responsibility – a passionate involvement and a forensic attention to detail – are ones Rizzi has meticulously developed across multiple projects, not least of which has been his work as Artistic Director of Opera Rara. With its mission on the restoration, recording, and performance of lost 19th and early 20th century works, the group not only gives an opportunity for opera history to be perceived and understood in broader ways, but allows for a far richer contextualizing of the “new” and “old” labels as applied to it, particularly within the realm of performance practices. One of their most celebrated released in recent memory was Ermonela Jaho’s immense Anima Rara from 2020, which beautifully showcased little-known verismo arias, and won the vocal category at the 2021 International Classical Music Awards. Opera Rara’s most recent recording is the one-act opera Zingari by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), out 23 September via Warner Music. Based on a poem by Pushkin from 1827, Zingari premiered in London in 1912 to great success, although Leoncavallo made extensive cuts and revisions to the work throughout its various revivals in Europe and North America. Rizzi noted during a recent Opera Rara release event that Zingari and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo’s famous 1892 work) share some structural differences, but Zingari, which Leoncavallo started writing in the early 1900s, is truly a thing apart, something the new recording emphasizes. He leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with palpable verve, carefully colouring its gloriously rich passages with a warmth of tone and precision in phrasing.
The recording is a symbol of the extent to which opera has shaped Rizzi’s career, as someone who has led rarities by a range of composers (including Giordano, Cimarosa, Bellini, Donizetti, Pizzetti, and Montemezzi) alongside well-loved works by Puccini and Verdi. Rizzi has served as Welsh National Opera’s Music Director twice (1992 to 2001, and 2004 to 2008) and is its Conductor Laureate; he regularly appears on the podiums of Teatro alla Scala Milan, Opera de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Den Norske Opera and Ballet (Oslo), and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has led over 200 performances. This coming season sees him conduct two more works at famed the NYC house – revivals of Puccini’s Tosca (starting 4 October), and Verdi’s Don Carlo (starting 3 November), before moving on to Paris, where he will lead works by Verdi (Il trovatore) and Gounod (Romeo et Juliet), and, in May, give an Opera Rara performance of Donizetti’s 1828 opera L’esule di Roma (The Exile From Rome) at London’s Cadogan Hall with the Britten Sinfonia. Rizzi and I spoke just prior to the release of Zingari, and, more immediately, the morning of a recent Medea rehearsal – about new works, old works, and the need to embrace risk, now more than ever.
What was the process for recording Zingari amidst pandemic?
We did it in December 2021, at the end of the serious lockdown but still the world was mostly wearing masks and distancing. I’ve since done Il proscritto by Saverio Mercadante with Opera Rara; which we did in June. That was much easier, but still, some got covid, thankfully none in the cast, and here in New York now we are rehearsing with masks. Some of the singers are allowed not to wear the masks for stage rehearsals – some do, some don’t – but the orchestra is all with masks.
While things are still so uncertain in the opera world, The Met’s decision to open their season with Medea seems unique.
It’s a situation I’ve never been in. Nobody has ever done it at The Met – nobody! So for the orchestra, chorus, me, singers, production, everybody, it’s a new discovery – even though this opera is very well known, particularly for the Callas phenomenon – it’s like there is a vacuum to fill, in a certain way. I sent some corrections to the Met Opera Library for the orchestra parts, something I have never had happen in opera before – it’s a discovery for everybody. Saturday we did it for the first time with the singers, which was great – I discovered a couple things I wanted to modify in the orchestra, and so.
This is a good thing and also a great responsibility – because in a way, there is the freedom to do things, but then again, in this case there is this recording, this Callas thing, and of course many people will have only heard that, so “oh this is Medea ” – well, actually no, this is Medea as she did it. Callas was Callas; now it’s 50 years later, and there is all this sense of anticipation and responsibility. It’s a big responsibility. I have to let the score speak to me, and in this particular opera it’s been very different from the others because his is a language, Cherubini’s, that is not very easy to classify. When you speak about Rossini, there is a certain way of writing to the voices with the support of the orchestra that you can identify – the same is true when you speak of Puccini or Verdi; if you think about an Traviata, okay, you can remember the Brindisi, the aria of the First Act, the duet in the Second Act. But here, in Medea of course there are those big arias and duets, but actually there is also a great interconnection in the drama between the voices and the orchestra. The orchestra is never a mere companion beside the voice, but a full partner. The orchestra players were talking about this recently – they feel in the middle of the drama with this opera. If there is a dramatic moment or a particular emotion a composer wants to express, of course it’s in the singing but with Medea it’s also fully in the orchestra.
There are some moments which I think are very clever; the character spends half ot the performance trying to get what she wants – to get revenge, of course – but she also wants to see her children. So there’s the line of Medea and the first violin, which is expressive of the latter, but if you look at the viola part, there’s something much more dark in it. When she says, “One day more” – the drama is in the scoring of the orchestra – Medea is, so to speak, in the orchestra. And I think that’s very interesting, because it allows the decisions you make with the orchestra and singers to be much more unified. For me that’s rewarding.
Cherubini’s work sonically anticipates much future work…
That is a huge question! The translation, per se, is not for me the most difficult thing, but there is some quirkiness to it. It’s for the simple reason that in Italian, always, basically, the accent is on the penultimate syllable, and in French the accent is on the last syllable. We do the (sung, in this version) Italian recitatives in this production. Now, one could say, “Why don’t you do them spoken in French?” – and sure, we could, but it’s the Italian version, and the recitatives are where the drama happens. The drama is never in an aria alone – what happened before and what happens after matter as much. The recitatives enhance the drama, beginning to end. Medea is so dramatic in her minimalism. She doesn’t come in flaming on a dragon – there is just a simple sound and simple chord: “where is the traitor?” It’s amazing, this moment, it’s so anti-operatic in a way, but totally, utterly dramatic. So taking the lead from what Cherubini wrote in these passages, I think, personally, that these recitative sections hold the drama of the piece; it all hangs on how those are performed.
You’re right regarding the translation – another opera I’m doing here later, Don Carlo, has the French version and Italian version – and there are differences in the ways that text is approached although written by the same composer. I grew up with Don Carlo in Italian, it’s what I’ve heard forever. When I did it in French at one point, or rather at certain points, things made more sense. The Italian (version) again, is not terrible – but in French, you can hear the meaning. We can discuss until the cows come home if we should do this only in French now, but I believe we can do both.
So the translation isn’t so central as to change the core meaning?
Sort of. What I’ve noticed, in studying both the French text and the Italian text, is yes, there are some differences. Sometimes you get translations of operas where, in the original language a character says one thing, and that comes out totally another thing in the translation – that is not the case with this opera! I think sometimes the (textual) quirks are there because (Carlo) Zangarini, as an Italian, was trying to keep the French line, the French text. The important thing to remember is that composers tend to think of certain words to give the apex of a phrase, it’s not just a question of translating it straight over. For example, if you take Rodolfo’s famous aria in Bohème, the word “speranza” is important, it’s everything Rodolfo hopes for, it’s why it’s a top C right there – but if you translate that word into another language, it changes the way everything lands. For Cherubini the drama isn’t on one note; the technical writing is less involving this apex which was common to Romantic aria writing, and is more focused around the development of the aria by the different orchestral sections. It’s instrumentation which brings characters to say certain things, including the moments with Medea and Giasone. You can hear it one way, or in another way, with the voice or with the orchestra, or both, so it’s like circles of relating.
Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Cherubini’s “Medea.” Photo: Paola Kudacki / Met Opera
You have worked with Sondra Radvanovsky a few times, including a lot of work in bel canto repertoire; what’s been your experience now?
I do find working with her so rewarding. The past times we’ve worked together, like in 2017 with Norma among many other performances, she would know those roles in her body, not only in the notes. This isn’t the bel canto she’s used to doing, and as I said before, it’s a discovery for everybody. Yesterday after rehearsal she and I were still discussing and exchanging ideas of how to more clearly project a certain kind of personality at a certain point rather than another kind at other moments – and all this energy comes together at a certain point: through the next rehearsals; with some technical things like portamento; where she goes into chest for a certain phrase, or if it’s more legato, or more a conversational sort of style; all these things are things we constantly discuss. It’s a project that is a work-in-progress, because again, it is the first time everybody has done it. We’d be foolish to come in and say, “This is the way we have to do this” when there are different and better ways.
How do you see Medea fitting within your overall opera oeuvre?
It’s interesting because Medea is something that never happened in my life – well, maybe when I was very young – but this is my fifth new opera in a row this year. It’s been bloody hard work – it’s not just opening the score and doing it! I started with Cendrillon (Massenet), then I did Il Proscritto (Mercadante) then I due Foscari (Verdi), then Rossini’s La gazzetta, and now Medea. For me personally it’s been a period of a lot of study, I can tell you, but also challenging in a positive way, especially after the covid lockdowns. It’s been very welcome. Now I’m happy doing something I’ve done before too. So often people think, “What do conductors do? What do they really do?” And, fine, if you have a good technique you can read and conduct something within three days – but truly, it requires more. Being a conductor requires a real maturation, and only time gives that. You have to know to start studying early – I started on Medea more than a year-and-a-half ago. You think about it; you read; you mark it up; you go away; you come back; it’s been a great period, but it’s been very busy also.
That’s very true. A related silver lining of this era is that we had the time to sit and study these things. Also, it has to be said, that even if everybody did the Zoom performances, the distanced performances, it comes out at the end that nothing can compare to, nothing can overtake the feeling of being at a live performance. That means there is a desire to have new things, to do new things, to not just do the same old things, and not to do them in such a comfortable way as before. We don’t take it for granted – because now we know: nothing is guaranteed anymore. So fine, let’s take it as a positive from the situation, and keep doing things this way, and hope the public will come back and not be fearful, and start to enjoy it again, and abandon one’s self not only to the music but visual art, to dance, to cinema, and so on. It’s why we’re making art.
Top photo: Carlo Rizzi rehearsing Zingari with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, December 2021. Photo: Simon Weir / Opera Rara.
Every day comes the email reminder: It’s time for your German lesson! Daily practice is key to learning a new language! During the worst of the pandemic lockdown I took formal lessons with a real, live teacher via Zoom; the experience was a useful and stimulating way to integrate education and interaction. Those months were indeed fruitful but pricey, and proved ultimately too dear for my limited budget, and so I am now left with basic, self-directed gadgets and services, and to my own analogue study, pursuits which demand other forms of payment (namely energy and attention) that I am not always able to give. It pangs me to consider the extent to which my language skills have slipped away, what with memories falling like raindrops lately – of winning fancy language prizes during elementary school days; of the praise garnered by my mother for pronunciation and swiftness of comprehension; of casually shrugging it away the way teenagers so often do when other interests enter and academic responsibilities loom. Playing linguistic catch-up (otherwise known as jumping in the deep end) as a middle-aged freelancer is daunting, exhausting, often disheartening, but passion for culture renders it necessary, and if I am being honest, uniquely rewarding.
And while knowledge of languages isn’t obligatory to opera appreciation, especially with the introduction of surtitles in 1983, such knowledge deepens the experience considerably. I always felt I was being left out of something, anything, everything, in not knowing opera’s prime languages (Italian-French-German) as well as I ought. That knowledge is slowly expanding, but so too, is my appreciation of the art of translation itself. Companies dedicated to presenting works in their geographically-specific local language (like the English National Opera, and once, if less so now, Komische Oper Berlin) would (do) rely on translations that aim to capture the nuances of both text and its relationship to and with orchestration and scoring, and (in some cases) to the contexts in which the work was first created and presented (and/or contemporaneously produced). Many composers have actively participated in translations of their works and/or collaborated with their respective text-based counterparts; among opera’s most famous librettists/translators are Alfred Kalisch (1863-1933), Edward J. Dent (1876-1957), Andrew Porter (1928-2015), Amanda Holden (1948-2021; her work will be the subject of a future feature here), and the famous team of W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). Auden-Kallman wrote, along with collaborative translation on works by Mozart, Weill, and Dittersdorf, original libretti for living composers, including Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress, 1951) and Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961; The Bassarids, 1966). More recently, to take just one of many examples, English National Opera’s production of Die Walkure – or The Valkyrie – in autumn 2021 was presented in a singing translation by musician/scholar John Deathridge, whose own meant-for-reading translation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book points up a vital aspect of the industry that has faced new challenges in the digital era, most particularly with the rise of streaming services amidst pandemic.
Any opera lover will know, probably too well, that hitting “translate” on a video lacking formal subtitling invites a world of frustration; the result is mostly comical, and stems from a longstanding caption problem on Youtube. Even with the insertion of formal subtitled translations,the nuances of expression are often lost, drowned out in weird mishmash mixes of intended accuracy and grammatical gibberish. One can’t help but notice the many inadequacies in watching various introductions, talks, interviews, and previews released by opera houses, orchestras, and other classical-related organizations, when it comes to translation options; the varied socio-cultural / political / historical contexts are often binned in the name of (one supposes) expediency, digestibility, an ever-present pressure to get a post up quickly with the least amount of fuss and satisfying ever-shrinking arts budgets while hoping to garner the ever-desired sexy clicks. Is the arts world really so ready to throw something as important as translation to the side? Isn’t it a foundational part of attracting new audiences (and keeping old ones) to cultivate meaningful comprehension (and thus engagement)? At such moments the digital world seems woefully ill-equipped for the demands of translation, yet the internet would seem to be the very spot to offer more fulsome possibilities for the sort of nuanced appreciation that best serves the repertoire – thus arguably increasing its overall appeal. Someone, surely, must be able to build something(s) better, a system organizations at any level can access that goes beyond Google translate (or deepl.com) limitations – but then, someone, something, surely, must fund all of it, and aye, there’s the rub. But how much meaning is being lost in the meantime? How many potential audiences? How many potential ears, minds, hearts?
Of course there is no substitute for direct sensory experience when it comes to the marriage of music and words, but the key, as ever, is finding the time. One of my favourite if too-rarely enjoyed activities is spending a day (a week, a month) studying an opera libretto and related score, large pot of fresh tea at hand. Noting the rhythm of language, the shifting colours of sounds, the ways in which the dynamism of vowels and consonants shapes and informs musical lines and orchestration; pondering interactions, phrasings, silences; these are gifts to be enjoyed and explored, over and over. The act of reading a libretto (especially aloud) gives one a simultaneously broader and more intimate relationship with words, with sounds, with flow, intonations, and emphases, the way they all feel in the mouth, carry-float-sink-shoot in or through the air – such a reading allows a greater comprehension of the world of words, of the work’s creators, and all those who’ve presented it since. Thus does the world become larger and more detailed, all at once. Deathridge did the world a great service indeed with his Ring book, but his efforts rile my writer’s heart for giving a sharp reminder of the fact that so few other opera-text ventures exist in the 21st century. There is clearly a long history of writer-composer relations – Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig worked with Richard Strauss, for example, and the texts of Friedrich Rückert and Clemens Brentano (among many others) were used by Gustav Mahler. English translations of these writers and others do indeed exist, though the output when it comes to their musical manifestations is spotty; those which are extant in scores, such as those which appear in the Dover editions of Mahler lieder, are far less than ideal (and don’t list translator names for the most part, pity). Indeed they may be intended for phonetic starting points, and as the bases of introductory study for musicians, but they are decidedly not a comprehensive whole. The ever-expanding Lieder.net is a good resource for song translations (and recognizes the translators, natch) even if it makes one long for a more comprehensive whole within the classical industry. Good English translations exist, but to reiterate, are spotty, not always easy to find, and are sometimes couched within more comprehensive volumes.
The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press, 2008), edited by poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy, contains a highly readable, immensely poetic translation of the first act of Die Rosenkavalier by dramatist Christopher Holme, done in 1963. Years before, in 1912, Strauss’s popular opera was its first full English translation by English critic and librettist Alfred Kalisch, who championed the composer’s work and translated other operas into English as well, Salome and Elektra among them. Kalisch himself noted in “The Tribulations of a Translator”, a 1915 presentation for the Royal Musical Association (published by Taylor & Francis; Source: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 1914-1915, 41st Sess. 1914-1915), pp. 145-161) the varied difficulties of translating opera, pinpointing the issue of whether it is the translator’s duty “to produce a readable translation or singable words.” This gets to the heart of the matter for current purposes, for while the latter is a topic for another day, the former – having something readable – is worth investigating, particularly in light of evolving technologies, audience engagement, cultural discussion, and to further perceptions around various forms of identity. Smart translations matter, and readable, easily accessible ones are a net good, in the world of literature as much as in the world of music and specifically classical culture. Most creators would, one assumes, like for their works to be understood in their full range of expression, for audiences of all locales and backgrounds to be given access to those intrinsic cultural nuances which are not always part of the concomitant scoring alone.
Thus it can be said that the act of translation demands respect for place, process, history, and humanism, qualities classical (as much the art form as its artists and ambassadors) aims to embrace and promulgate. In November 1959 writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) presented a lecture at the University of Texas in which he outlined, with fascinating precision, the ways in which the act of translation (as applied here to poetry) changes according to various contexts and received understandings. Using Sappho’s “Orchard” as his first example, Rexroth offers up eight different translations (including his own) to illustrate the vagaries and subtle ways in which language, and the societies from which understandings and experiences of the world springs, informs translation choices. He goes on to observe that translation “can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level.” Translation can do much more, as he notes:
It is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human life outside of one’s own. Making that leap requires imagination, but also compassion.
Thus I would posit that translation is (as I have written in the past) more than sympathy, but a true act of empathy, for translation engages the imagination just as empathy requires, and both require active, directed integrations of intellect and creativity to achieve meaningful effect. Someone who understands this integration thoroughly is poet and translator Boris Dralyuk. Born in Odesa and later relocating to America, Dralyuk is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the LA Review of Books, and is married to acclaimed fellow translator Jenny Croft. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature, though he also taught at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Awarded first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition, he went on, together with Russian-American poet/essayist Irina Mashinski, to win first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 Dralyuk received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly. His work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Review Of Books. His book Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 (Brill) was published in 2012; three years later, he co-edited, together with Mashinski and British poet/translator Robert Chandler, the immense Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), containing a wide swath of poets and writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Dralyuk also served as editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). His translation of Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press) by Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was published in 2018. Dralyuk has also translated the works of Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940), with Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). The writings of Babel, a fellow Odesa native, were described by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard in 2016 as “(f)ractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour […] they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will.” With bold strokes and wild energy, Babel vividly explores the lives of an assortment of colourful sorts drawn from real life, and Dralyuk’s own poetic attention to tone, colour, and pacing shine through the words, not to mention the meticulous, carefully considered rests between those words; rhythm, as it turns out, is just as important as exactitude. In addition to translating the work of Babel, Dralyuk has a close association with noted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (b. 1961), whose equally timely and often harrowing books The Bickford Fuse (Maclehose Press, 2016), and Grey Bees (Maclehose Press, 2020) have been translated to much acclaim, with Kurkov’s own recent fame in the West fuelling a rising awareness of the centrality of good translation and all the moving parts therein.
After much planning and re-planning, Dralyuk and I finally were able to chat – about translation as it applies to various corners of culture, about so-called identity politics, the choices he’s made as editor of the LA Review Of Books, his debut collection of poetry, My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books, 2022), and about the role technology can (should) play in advancing the awareness and appreciation of languages. We also discussed current notions around expression of cultural identity; related moral panics; the value (if any) of retaining romanticized notions in art and music and the related role of context in breaking apart habitual webs of intransigence. Just what does Dralyuk think of the current (and perhaps lasting) labelling of identities? Certainly such labels matter in translation? In an essay from March, The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross noted that “(a)cknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in fact, serve as a check on the oppressive allure of nationalist mythologies.” At a time when privilege, didacticism, and binary conclusions dominate large swaths of cultural discourse, examining the complex connections between familial (and social, economic, cultural) origins and creative output is vital, translators play a crucial role in helping to facilitate (and in some cases, promote) awareness and expansion of those connections, and of fostering curiosity, comprehension, and compassion to those identities.
And, a quick if vital note: I don’t speak or read the languages Dralyuk translates (yet), but I do strongly feel that his work, especially at this point in time, is of tremendous importance. Dralyuk possesses a musician’s approach to the elements, skillfully balancing, conjuring, and highlighting tone, colour, dynamism, texture, tempo, rhythm, silence, as pace and structure dictate. He understands the complexities of technique, the labyrinthe of contexts, the connections between head and heart, and he wants to let us, the reader, into that world. Emotion is, as you’ll read, a key part of what he does. Dralyuk is a maestro of translation, but he is also (and this was confirmed in our chat), humble, funny, kind, and involved. I remain grateful for his time and energy.
Note: The following interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022.
You’ve translated authors whose works are now more widely known, and you’ve taken part in panels on Ukraine; do you think the attention on the country and its authors will lead to an overall greater curiosity and knowledge?
I think the attention is a good thing if it’s a lasting awareness.None of this is certain yet, whether this period of newfound fascination will outlive the conflict or whether it will even, frankly, be sustained throughout this war, which shows no sign of ending. I can only rely on my personal impressions and on the things I hear from my friends, but I think the worry is that social media and the news cycle bring up new scandals and new conflict and new conflagrations every day, and they have a lifespan of their own, and it would be wonderful if the people who are advocating for and spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture, if they’re able to leverage this attention that’s been drawn to the country – for the wrong reasons – for good.
Leverage the attention in a meaningful way that technology allows for?
That’s my hope.
Very often, I see – and I’m sure you do too – these updates and opinions go by, and I always wonder how it is that we don’t have a better technological framework that would accommodate the translations you and Jenny do.
I think Jenny is more of an optimist than I’ve tended to be. I’m pretty pessimistic myself, nowadays, but let’s put it this way: let’s say you have some degree of earned respect in the world, you’ve done a few things people like, and therefore you speak with some degree of authority. If that’s the case, what you put out there, regardless of the technological channels, will reach people. Social media is powerful in that regard; these things, even poems, if well-timed – and I don’t make a study of when to post or that kind of thing, though I know some do – but if well-timed in the general sense, if they hit on something people are thinking about, and you are one of the people to whom others tend to listen on these very subjects, the thing you’re putting out there will reach someone, a good number of people. Even if you reach two or three people when you could’ve reached five, you’ve still reached two to three people. I’m not really complaining about the channels available to us, I know there are people like yourself who actively work and think about new platforms and new ways to present the cultural items we care about most in a way that might gain traction.
These new ways of presenting culture tend to bump up against the perceived legitimacy of legacy brands, but the tools at hand, which everyone uses, make changing perceptions a challenge. Being independent means you gain certain things but lose others.
I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t intervene too heavily in the things we publish at the LA Review of Books. I edit what we accept, if not myself, then others do, but it’s a broadly-based organization and always has been. The editing is not a reflection of my personal vision – I’m not Draconian, I don’t rule like a tyrant – but where I do rule like a tyrant is at my own blog or on my social media platforms, and I regard those as a rather pure form of expression. I have a very different sense of what a successful post on my own blog means to what a successful post on LARB means. Not infrequently a poem or translation published on my blog will reach more people than it might have at the LARB website itself – and that’s because people who believe that I do something well enough to listen to me go to the place where I do it; they’re not the readers of the LA Review of Books, necessarily – they’re the readers of my translations. And over time that number of people has grown, largely thanks to my use of WordPress and Twitter.
You are your own brand in that sense.
Yes, that’s right – because I’m not thinking of how to elevate my position there. I don’t get paid for my blog posts or the translations I post there. lf I really wanted prestige I’d try to get them into the major journals and would submit widely every 6 months, and face rejection letters and do it again and again – but that’s not what matters to me. I want those translations and those poems to reach the largest possible number of readers. And so they go on my blog.
And that’s to me a crucial point about the act of translation: you want to reach people. Reaching isn’t the same as engagement...
That’s very true…
… but through reaching people you can engage with what you translate in a new and important way. When I spoke with Elena Dubinets she said she found it hard to fathom how soldiers who’d read Dostoyevsky could engage in such horrendous acts of violence – which made me ponder the ways in which culture is received and perceived according to various factors.
I think if there is a net-positive outcome here, it is a change in how we perceive Russian culture. Some people do have a starry-eyed view of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I myself do not – but I don’t think it’s a crime to think that way. I do think it can become pernicious when we associate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and their art, with a kind of purity of soul, and a purity of vision, and then assume that anyone speaking Russian must surely possess those innate qualities. That’s not a good thing. We have to be realistic, difficult though it may be. We can’t always hold ourselves to this, but we have to be realistic when we make judgments about cultures and the bearers of those cultures, whatever the culture we come from. We may love the US but hate our neighbour because our neighbour has this to say, and our mother has that to say, and the guy down the street says something else – we’re all very different, yet there are things that tie us together. The same goes for people living in Russia and living in Ukraine. At some moments those common features become the most important things in our lives – as in moments of crisis, moments like these – but in general we are all different people and all have different capacities for insight and capacities for love and capacities for hatred. Russian culture, being such a powerful force in the world, has convinced many people, too many people, that Russians are a bunch of soulful Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Pushkins, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin were themselves complicated figures, not pure of soul at all times. I think this war can make us more realistic, bring greater nuance to our understanding of the people we read and admire, of the cultures in which we’re interested.
The “nuance” aspect largely goes against the algorithms that power the platforms we use…
… but now especially, do you feel a particular weight or responsibility to not just present new things but old things with that same nuance? And how much do you see others carrying it forwards?
I think anyone working in Ukrainian and Russian right now feels a heightened sense of responsibility. I know I certainly was much more likely to do things before this war because I was interested in them without thinking about their effect in the world. I was kind of an “art for art’s sake” purist… I mean, I have ethics, but I’ve always been interested in presenting the most … challenging, the most delightful, the most complicated, the most unusual work, in translation, regardless of the life of the man or woman who wrote it, regardless of their political affinities. It’s basically been my sense that if the work is well made, it deserves to be read, and people can make up their own minds about how terrible the person was or how terrible the things expressed in it are. I still think that’s largely where I land, but I feel I now have to be more selective, not because anyone asked me. The people I translated tend to be people who are, I think, generally, somewhat responsible – not always. But I do think that it behooves us to be careful, now, in how we present work that may be interesting but perhaps can be too easily misread or misused at the same time.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
I’m curious how you think this relates to the music world. It’s difficult to find good translations, even with companies dedicated to performing in English; there is this sense of “well just learn” whatever language – “just” carrying a number of unfair assumptions, not least access to resources. So how to most effectively move past these attitudes? And how do we approach translating things like libretti, which, by their very nature, resist any form of translation?
I think the technology is very much the answer. Google has taught people that translation is no easy thing, and Google Translate, yes, people knock it, but there are two things about it worth considering: one, it’s getting better every day, because of the input – every time someone asks it to translate something, it learns – and the other thing is that it reminds people every day of the need for a human touch. I think ultimately it’s a great educational tool, not only for getting the bare thing across, so some people can move about their business day, but also, if you plug in Tolstoy whole, you’ll get rubbish that’s useless unless a human being gets involved. The technology leads people to realize how important translation is. Over the last ten years or so there’s been a greater appreciation of the work of translators and that appreciation has inspired many young people – I see this every day, more and more people are asking me about my career and how I got into this. So there’s more interest in learning and mastering and communicating across languages, and the number of younger translators is growing by leaps and bounds, and that speaks to a broader interest in foreign languages.
That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the quality of translation will improve, because what you need in order to be a great translator is the ability to read very closely and very carefully, and with a lot of emotion. You have to respond emotionally to a text, and not just intellectually. You also have to have deep intellectual understanding, but you need a real love for expression – a real love for the target language. You have to revel in it and relish it. You have to find the task of writing immensely rewarding, find a lot of joy in it. People who translate simply because they love the original and are just going through the motions of putting it into English will probably not come out with as pungent or flavourful a product as those who both love the original and love the target language.
That brings to mind a common line of thinking on English: “oh it’s so limited…”
I hate that…
I really do, I hate it when people say, “Oh, well, English is a poorer language, because it doesn’t have a-b-c” – no, every language lacks something, an a, b, or c, but it makes up for that in other ways, by what it brings to the table. So you have to be in awe of the possibilities of English when you embark upon a translation – that’s how you get the best text. You don’t get it by saying, “Oh no, I’m going to lose this and that because English can’t possibly do it” – yes it can! English can do anything you want it to! That’s the attitude you’ve got to take.
By the same way of thinking, how would one translate the works of writers like Joyce or E.E. Cummings into Russian?
People have – you do it by writing Ulysses, by being a genius at your work. Those translators did a good job. That’s how Alice In Wonderland was translated into Russian – you have to have the same level of imagination and sense of possibility as Lewis Carroll had.
I love the Irish sense of playing with the language of their British colonizers – it’s a big reason I fell in love with Irish literature years ago, and underlines what Rexroth says when he explores Sappho, and gives examples of how each culture translated the same poem differently…
The Irish thing is a good example of what Ukrainians have attempted to do with the Russian language, from Gogol on – a good parallel –Isaac Babel would count, by dint of two circumstances, as a colonial subject –he’s Jewish and he’s from Ukraine. He’s a good analogy for Joyce, for speakers of Irish extraction. That’s one of the things I love most about translating the Russian language of Ukrainian speakers, which is a kind of endangered species now: they approach it from the side, as insider-outsiders, and it makes for very rich texts. I’ve spent a good deal of time on that aspect.
The insider/outsider thing is especially interesting – how much do you identify with that, as someone not born in America but raised there?
I think of myself largely as an American. So many of us weren’t born in America, and it’s a unique culture in that regard; nativism is present but isn’t the defining feature of the culture. Most of the people who have contributed mightily to the formation of American letters and culture, from the colonial period on,, were immigrants to the United States…
Yes, exactly! I feel I’m a pretty good run-of-the-mill American – but yes, of course, you are also right that there is an outsider component to it. This happens to be a nation of immigrants, but that doesn’t make me anything other than an immigrant: I am still an immigrant to the United States. The story of immigration is central to the story of America, writ large.
That inclusivity stands in stark contrast to a world that quickly ostracizes those who don’t speak the language…
It happens, but I think that’s wrong – and to my mind, very dated.
It brings to mind what Rexroth noted, that translation is an act of sympathy, or to my mind, empathy.
Yes, and it’s amazing to me that that observation had to wait until 1959 to be made – I mean, it probably didn’t, I’m sure others said something similar – but it seems so natural to me that those who enjoy translation the most, the people who are the most successful at creating readable and moving texts based on texts in other languages, are using their capacity for empathy. They really do feel deeply connected to the texts they’re reading and to the people behind them. And if you don’t feel that connection, if you just sit there mechanically translating, then you may produce a more accurate version than Google Translate, but it won’t necessarily be a fuller version – or a more appealing one.
Your work has made me ask ‘who’s the translator?” through many book purchases the last little while.
That’s so lovely – that’s as it should be! I think Jenny probably did more to accomplish that than I did, but it’s important to pay attention to the translators. There are certain translators, long dead, whose work may not be perfect, but who I feel have as much of an oeuvre as that of any author, so I will read everything they’ve done, simply because I love their artistry.
That’s similar to following the work of soloists or conductors: one may not like a particular piece or opera, but one might really love the artistry of the person doing it.
That’s a perfect analogy! The soloist or conductor is an interpreter, just like the translator.
Speaking of translations and artistry: do you have a favourite translation of Bulgakov’s famous The Master and Margarita?
That’s a tough question. I think the Michael Glenny translation of 1967 is overall the more flexible and colourful, but there are glaring errors that have yet to be corrected. If somebody were to sit down, somebody who really understands the text, and use it as the start, building it out, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands.
Because you haven’t done it yet…
I would love to edit that Glenny text, but process-wise, one way I check – it isn’t a perfect thermometer, but it works – how good a translation is, is by the impact it has on the target culture. For instance, it was the Glenny translation that gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the later translations would’ve had that influence – they’re not quite as readable as the Glenny.
I keep being told that there has yet to appear a translation which captures the humour, the rhythm…
I think that’s generally true. We’ve made a start, but we need someone to go in there and finish. Frequently I’m drawn to older translations not because they’re the most accurate in every sense, not because they capture all the tones of the original, but because the world in which those earlier translators lived is more or less the world in which the authors lived – they were contemporaries, so when the authors described something they could see with their own eyes, those translators of long ago saw those things with their own eyes too. When they were translating a description, they knew exactly what was being described. That creates a sharper image in English, a clearer sense of what it is Tolstoy is talking about, or Dostoyevsky is talking about. I would urge people not to toss out the old versions completely; you can continue to translate and refine the texts but I think those old versions have something to offer us too.
Like literary Ur-Text?
There is the urge now to make plain cultural labels – ie, “this is Ukrainian; that is Russian” and to draw pat conclusions based on them.
I don’t think people will hold on to that; I think it’ll go away. Right now there’s controversy about renaming streets in Ukraine. But renaming a street from Tolstoy Street has nothing to do with saying that “Tolstoy is a bad writer.” What it’s about – and this is spelled out clearly in a LARB piece – is saying: look, there’s every reason to keep reading Tolstoy; go ahead and read Tolstoy, no one’s stopping you. But there’s a reason this street was named after Tolstoy in the first place: this country was subjugated by Russia. The reason that we have so many streets named after Russian writers and none at all named after Portuguese writers is that we were not subjects of Portuguese colonization – we were subjects of Russian colonization. So by renaming these streets in honour of Ukrainian authors and cultural figures, all we’re saying is: these are our streets. If you want to sit on the street and read Tolstoy, that’s fine. It may not be a comfortable thing for those who love Tolstoy to witness, but it’s the choice of the people who live on that street. I really don’t think this hysteria about Russian culture being cancelled will be proven to have been justified. There are a lot of reasons why we should worry about all the things happening now; the fact Russian literature will lose a few more readers in the short term is not one of them.
A couple people have written to me to say, “It’s not the time for Russian voices,” and I myself have shown preferential treatment for those writing from Ukraine – it’s more important right now. People will make that kind of editorial judgment call. Yet I can’t imagine any person, no matter how patriotic they are who will say, “I will never again read anything from a Russian, ever” –even those who are militant say, “It may take five years, or ten years; it may take twenty years,” – but at some point, I think Ukrainians will be reading Russian literature, and Russians will be reading Ukrainian literature. Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to listen to Ukrainians who are under active attack rather than to most Russians. That said, I still translate Russian authors myself; I just did a translation of a piece by Maxim Osipov (“Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia“, The Atlantic, May 16, 2022). But, to be blunt, I don’t think Russians are paying that big a price, comparatively – that’s my sense of things.
Elena Dubinets also noted in our chat how the language around how we discuss these cultures must be decolonized – a word that’s been used more and more often in this context.
Yes, and decolonization is not necessarily cancellation. Again, all we’re talking about is adding nuance to our understanding of how Russian culture functions, and has functioned, and been allowed to function, in the world. Tolstoy himself is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy is another. A monument to Tolstoy on his estate is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy in a place he never visited, simply because Russia owned it, is another.
But this questioning has led to a big moral panic in some circles – certain corners of the classical world have made quite a lot of noise about how identity politics is detracting from art and music. For instance, Prokofiev was born in Eastern Ukraine; Tchaikovsky’s paternal family were Ukrainian. What do you make of the current debate around identity politics as it relates to Russian and Ukrainian artists?
I don’t think this is identity politics – I think this is the acknowledgement of the complicated histories of this region and of the people who called and still call it home. To say that Gogol is strictly a Russian writer or strictly a Ukrainian writer would be silly – he’s obviously a Russian writer and a Ukrainian writer, and that’s a consequence of the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. I think we as lovers of culture can arrive there – many of us are already there. Right now tempers are heated, and for good reason: cultural monuments are being destroyed by bombs. The head of Shevchenko has a bullet in it.Those things are not acceptable; those things are not going to bring about truth and reconciliation. But I do feel we’ll get through this. Both of these cultures are too strong to be eradicated, and no matter how powerful the Russian military is, it will not squash Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. which was banned over several centuries yet lives on, and is one of the most productive literary cultures in Europe right now. I don’t think anyone who aims to kill the culture as part of this conflict will succeed, and once they’ve failed decisively, we can go about creating a better, more representative picture of this region’s history, and its art.
Note: This interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022.
I learned of conductor Michail Jurowski’s passing yesterday morning, March 19th, 2022. What a blessing, to have met him and later spent time in conversation. Initially connecting at a concert (where else) we subsequently made arrangements for a proper interview, with him in Berlin, and me (then) in Bucharest. Kind, patient, generous, and full of stories, he was very keen to share his thoughts and experiences on everything from meeting Stravinsky to pondering the ways in which compromise and authenticity affect the work of being a conductor and artist. He was someone who took time with his responses, broke out big grins now and again, asked me to repeat things (“the sound on my computer is so bad!”). In other words, Jurowski was warm, human, and unpretentious.
I confess to feeling like a fraud at a few points, battling through the anxiety I could feel rising in waves now and again: who was I, after all, this eager-beaver Canadian without a music degree, asking such an accomplished person such questions? How long I had incubated that question, one of a perceived lack which had, up to news of the maestro’s passing, burnished into an acid shame that had become a near-unconscious part of every day being. I don’t fit in because I can’t! It was a shrieking demon of self-doubt.
In learning of Jurowski’s passing I was reminded of a moment when that demon was, if not silenced, content to sit in a corner, only making the occasional ruckus. Some days are better than others in facing down such a creature. Sometimes it shrieks, tells me I ought best quit writing about music. Imposter syndrome for writers is real; equally real is the rejection one feels from lacking what all the other members of the club seem to so easily possess. I am learning to negotiate such details and related feelings, to see a much broader picture with far less self-doubt there are things happening in the world. I am slowly learning to kick the demon’s tail out of the way as best I can, with a reminder (in my mother’s voice) that I’ve always been an outsider anyway; why should now be any different?
Maestro didn’t care about my perceived deficiencies, or if he did, he didn’t let on. Get the lead out, as my mother would say. The last thirty hours or so has been spent, in large part, ruminating on that 2019 conversation with the conductor, listening to his wide variety of recordings (from ones of his own father to those by Khancheli, Shostakovich, Schulhoff, and Lehar too), and then looking at a litany of news items, one more horrible than the next. That he should pass now, of all times, seems especially tragic. Moscow-born and with Ukrainian-Jewish roots, Jurowski belonging to a generation that looked to the West as a source of hope and even inspiration. It seems hard to believe, and yet. Jurowski didn’t buy the reductive Them vs. Us narrative made so popular (so widely if unconsciously carried) promulgated through Putin-era politics. His focus was European and Slavic repertoire, but he was well aware of administration stesses and funding realities and what they all meant, having held official positions in various organizations (Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden). He was highly aware of postwar perceptions of Russian-ness versus its lived reality, and painfully aware of what it was to be an outsider. He knew about audiences; as he told me in our chat, the one in Cleveland was among the most receptive he’d experienced. He didn’t carry heavily sentimentalized notions of his home country, or if he did, he didn’t let on about them publicly. (Through such a lens the final image of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia begins to make an awful sense, but more on that in a future post.) “My family has been through a lot,” he said, speaking about his father toward the end of our chat. I remember he shook his head, letting out a little sigh.
Whatever memories he did carry were firmly in the past, and not meant to be guides of the present, creatively or otherwise. It is painful to think he only enjoyed his American debut in 2019, at the age of 73, a few months before we spoke. Jurowski cared about a great many things, but what he didn’t care about where I happened to be from, what that might imply, or what that could mean in European classical music circles. (The recent cries from the continent, along the lines of, “Mon Dieu, don’t import your North American culture wars here!” seem especially absurd.) Maestro didn’t seem to care about my perceived lack, as someone born in North America: of the “right” background; of the “right” degrees; of the “right” books / movies / theatre / albums having been consumed in childhood / youth; of the “right” linguistic skills; of the “right” cultural knowledge. All of these things seem to hold a certain weight to some in the current cultural milieu, ironically, in an era that is (the marketing tells us) meant to be more inclusive. He was curious, and in today’s climate, a symbol of what Russian culture can, should be, and maybe still is: curious, yes, but also open, inclusive, generous.
Jurowski asked me again in that conversation, just as he’d done when we met: how did I know his work? Through his wondrous recording of Moses (by way of soprano Chen Reiss, who appears on the recording), released in 2018. How did I know about Kancheli? Well, Youtube makes sometimes-magical suggestions. And Pärt? Via the 1999 Meltdown Festival programmed by Nick Cave; I was living in London at the time and intrigued by Cave’s mix of rock, punk, blues, and classical. Isn’t that kind of mix the way music should be experienced? Maestro was flattered at my enthusiasm, my admitting to exploring things I didn’t grow up with, what I want to call my Canadian moxie. He was happy to exchange ideas, happy to listen to what I heard in those albums and others, keen to know the paths I’d taken thereafter. What’s more, he offered suggestions of things to listen to and watch. I left that conversation feeling not stupid but encouraged. What a refreshing, welcome feeling.
That sense didn’t occur because of some magical bridge that had been constructed over the course of our 70-minute exchange. Music is not, to my mind, a universal language; it does not always build bridges. To believe it does, or can, is to ignore the many varied landscapes and circumstances and realities of human experience – varied perceptions, inequalities, streams of thought, beliefs (and related intransigence); sadness, loss, engagements and learned behaviours. None of these things magically vanish via romantic artsy lenses, or should vanish, particularly now (universalism is a nice theory for and by the privileged) – but the thing music asks us to do, in its best form, matters: to use your imagination, and sometimes, do that in the active exercise of empathy, to make the leap across a chasm, sans bridge. Bridges are for the lazy. Get your feet dirty, and all the better in someone else’s reality. Some (composers, conductors, singers, ensembles) are more skilled at highlighting this than others. As listeners, we are often asked to imagine: other people, other worlds, the composer composing, the musicians playing, the maestro on the podium, the faces and hands of engineers and producers and audiences. Of course, one imagines one’s self sometimes too, as one or another – that’s the social media reality of navel-gazing, but more than that, it’s also a reflection of the human need to dream.
The music I love best is the sort that gently requests a look outside, away from self –and simultaneously within it, honestly enough to throw that shell away in order to glimpse another world, another time, another life, without attempting to understand. Some things don’t make sense, because they can’t. This has been something I think the last two years has constantly reminded us of; loss doesn’t ask to be understood. We cannot understand, we cannot control it; we can only mitigate its effects, minimize the transmission of grief, think, consider, act – stare at the chasm, wonder if we have the right boots to wade in. Sometimes the right sounds, at the right time, blow the fuse on the ouroboros of suffering. It isn’t the music doing that, it’s what what we’re bringing to it. Perhaps we’ll light some tiny spark, somewhere. Perhaps the chasm will fill in, however slightly and temporarily.
We also have the choice not to move at all. A quietly-yawning compassion deficit, prevalent throughout modern life and made noticeable amidst pandemic, is now writ horribly, painfully large through war. I’ve been writing about this lately and how it relates to the classical industry (including as part of an essay series; Part 1 is already up), contemplating its implications and origins a great deal – reading, watching, trying to understand various worlds, minds, lives, and ways of thinking and being, all of them largely powered on this horrendous deficit of compassion (Andrey Kurkov, Hannah Arendt, and Ingeborg Bachmann provide a few clues, along with the films of Yuri Bykov and Andrey Zvyagintsev). I have been avoiding and simultaneously diving straight into news, furiously hoovering, barely eating, avoiding mirrors, slowly completing student marking, booking a trip, cancelling a trip, pecking at writing and tossing around giving it up altogether; eyeballing graduate school, smirking at cat photos, and looking out the window at the pond across the street. The signs of life are there, though the colors are still muted; the geese have yet to return, but the robins are already out, bobbing along the edges of low bushes. I want to flick parked cars and noisy voices away like dirty crumbs. Perhaps a little bit of faith is required, hard and expensive it may be; perhaps a bit of patience needs be extended. Loss is a huge a hole to navigate, and it comes with consistently rough edges. There is no such thing as the “right” kind of grieving; there is only grief, and it takes as long as it must. In the meantime, one remembers, and keeps remembering.
And so I remember Michail Jurowski – his kindness, his generosity, his curiosity, and the ways in which his work touched so many. Seeing the various tributes of late, I am struck at their shared chords, the ones sounding out those qualities which are so precious, the ones which have become so scarce. He was Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, a musician, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a confidant, an inspiration, a mentor, an artist; he only made it to America once, but oh, lucky Cleveland. He affected so many, so much, and I hope his spirit lives on not only through his family but through those who worked with him, spoke with him, and those who listen to his work with renewed curiosity and enthusiasm. His mind, and his spirit, knew the notes as if burned into the heart; as he told me in 2019, he “composes” them in a sense, himself, every time he opens a score. He never used such knowledge as a weapon, but instead, as an umbrella. I imagine myself standing under its shade now, hearing the sounds of Kancheli, Rubinstein, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and those of his father too, and I imagine things blooming, slowly, however briefly, waiting out the storm.
Thank you, maestro. I wish we could have spoken one more time.
Baroque music might be the classical form that comes with greatest number of clichés. It is arch, it is highly formal, it possesses a tight structure which erases any notion or expression of emotion; it is repetitive, it is fussy; once you have heard a bit, you have most certainly heard all – these are the bit of baggage I carried myself whenever I would sit down at the piano and play the works of Bach, Telemann, and Handel. I knew the notes well enough, and I didn’t care; I understood the repetitions, but they were dull. Along with grey hair and wrinkles, adulthood brings maturity (one hopes), patience (sometimes), and a deeper appreciation of form and content, and the connections therein. So arrives a greater energy put toward understanding the myriad of emotional expression wrought by artful engineering; through time da capo comes to mean something more than the snazzy hat from youth now gathering dust in the hall closet. Those olives that were once so acrid are now heavenly; those anchovies once so bossy on the palate now meltingly luscious – those repetitions once so dull are now so… real, so immediate, so achingly, recognizably human – messy, even, just the way humanity, and all manner of human relating, happens to be.
That immediacy, so inextricably and intimately linked with baroque itself, is something conductor Harry Bicket knows well, as his recording and performance history so thoroughly demonstrate. Bicket started out as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, and went on to be an organist at Westminster Abbey, from there going on to play freelance harpsichord through the 1980s with Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner – and Trevor Pinnock, who, significantly, co-founded The English Concert in the early 1970s. In 1990 Bicket led Handel’s Ariodante at English National Opera – it was his was his first outing conducting an opera – and it was the success of that production (by David Alden) which led to an invitation to lead Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne with director Peter Sellars. From there, productions with Bayerische Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera soon followed, opening the doors to something of a baroque opera revival. Maestro has appeared at The Royal Opera Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company, to name just a few, and has also led concerts as guest conductor with The Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and led masterclasses at The Juilliard School. Numerous appearances with Santa Fe Opera (starting with his first, Agripina, in 2004) led to his being named the company’s Chief Conductor in 2013, and in 2018, the Music Director. He led two of the company’s 2021 productions (The Marriage of Figaro and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and is set to lead a new production of Carmen for Santa Fe’s 2022 season.
Bicket became Artistic Director of The English Concert in 2007, and has left an indelible mark on what is considered by many to be one of the finest baroque chamber orchestras in the world. The group, who play on period instruments, have conducted lauded international tours and played numerous concerts at their London base, in an assortment of venues, including Wigmore and Cadogan Halls and the Southbank Centre. The group’s recording of Handel’s Rodelinda, released earlier this year (Linn Records), is miraculous in every respect. Its stellar cast includes piercingly beautiful performances by soprano Lucy Crowe in the title role and countertenor Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. Handel’s opera, premiered in London in 1725, is one of his most popular, if also deeply touching, with its themes that explore ideas of power, loss, grief, and the nature of fidelity. The production was originally scheduled for presentation at Carnegie Hall, but pandemic realities rendered that plan impossible; instead, a recording was done at St John’s Smith Square, London in September 2020, with musicians and singers observing formal distancing protocols. Despite, or perhaps owing to such mandated distancing, the work has a rich aural cohesion of instruments and voices, a quality one might associate more with late-nineteenth-century German opera than with baroque opera, although the distancing contributes what Fiona Maddocks noted (in her review at The Guardian) as “a sense of risk to music already, in its energy and complexity, on the edge.”
Bicket knows that edge very well, and his attention to detail is palpable; he led a hailed production of the opera at The Met in 2004 (the opera’s first-ever production of the work in the history of the company), and returned for a revival in 2012. In March 2022 he returns to the pit at The Met once more, leading Elza van den Heezer and Iestyn Davies. He told San Francisco Classical Voice‘s Michael Zwiebach in early November that his work with the chamber-sized The English Concert, which he leads from the harpsichord, forces such attention to detail:
[…] all this music, obviously, is based on text, and the music exists because of the amazing libretto and also the characteristics of the Italian language. You know, every double consonant, every diphthong, every open vowel, every closed vowel: How do we find a color in the orchestra to match that. Because if we don’t do that, we are the equivalent of a singer that goes on stage and sings “lalalalala.” So I say to the orchestra, “look this word begins with a hard ‘S’ not a soft ‘S’ so our bowstroke has to be a sibilant ‘S’.” Now we have a common language so we can do that quite easily.
Earlier this month Bicket and The English Concert went on a much-awaited mini-tour of California, presenting a series of in-concert performances of another Handel opera, Alcina, with stops in Los Angeles and Berkeley; the stellar cast included Karina Gauvin, Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth DeShong, Paula Murrihy, Alek Shrader, and Wojtek Gierlach. Bicket and I spoke between those performances, about that needed detail, travel realities amidst pandemic, the recently-announced 2022 season at Santa Fe Opera and why he loves its house, how atmosphere informs experience, and why he feels it’s vital to fight for the continuance of live performance in an atmosphere of digital streaming.
Photo: Richard Haughton
How is California treating you?
Good! We had our first performance two nights ago when we were very jet-lagged; it was an effort to get through the third act of the programme – it was 5am for us! – but we did well.
Is this your first time being on the continent since the pandemic?
Yes, we only got in, really by the skin of our teeth. Any other organization might’ve not bothered going it, but we were determined to make it work. All the orchestra had to get visas, these NIEs they’re called, National Interest Exceptions, which are notoriously hard to get; you have to go to the (American) embassy, be interviewed, each member has to be able to prove they can come, then they take your passport away and don’t tell you if you’ve got your visa or not.
Is that paperwork only because of the pandemic?
Yes, although starting next week you can get on a flight to the United States without any of this paperwork – I mean, as a musician, you always need a visa, but at the moment, because (the border) is still technically shut down and they are not allowing Europeans in, and if you do come in you have to prove your work is essential, which is quite hard to do and very labour intensive. We’d already booked flights and hotels and everything, so we’d have taken a huge hit had we not made it, but it worked.
So traveling to the U.S. was a real leap of faith then…
It was! This was the third time we’ve tried to do this in Los Angeles, it’s been three years in a row trying now, the first two years were cancelled because of both lockdowns and we thought, “We can’t not do it now!”
What’s the atmosphere been like?
We had a very joyful time the other night, but obviously ticket sales are down and they’re not going to come back immediately. I mean with Santa Fe this summer, people were crazy ordering, but that is more of an outdoor space, so perhaps people feel more comfortable going there, but it’s depressing to think if people don’t want to come back to live theatre and music overall.
Have you found this pandemic has revealed an intercontinental chasm in terms of those audiences?
I think in Europe it varies from country to country in terms of the strictness (of safety protocols and related enforcement) – L.A. is pretty hardcore on those rules; you can’t go to restaurants without proving you’re double vaccinated. We’re being tested the whole time we’re here. People wear masks walking down the street – and in L.A. the streets are the size of five blocks anywhere else, but people wandering around here, not near anyone else, are doing it with masks. You see it. It’s mandated. And so it feels very locked down, in a way. The audience has to show proof of vaccination also, but I think it’s too early to tell, to be honest, how long things may last, and how people will react once things are just open. I mean, my sense in Europe is that we’re over it. I think now that the majority of people are vaccinated, and I think everyone accepts masks are here to stay and for certain rules and distancing, to a certain extent, to keep going, but it’s more a question there of, “how do we live with it?” rather than, “when will it be over?” – because it won’t really be over.
In your line of work you must hear of the attitude to baroque music – that it is emotionless, clinical, cold – but I don’t feel that listening to your Rodelinda at all.
I understand what you’re saying about those attitudes, though!
A lot of those clichés get perpetuated – in media of various forms, and even by some musicians!
I wasn’t an early music person years back; I was a pianist. I listened to Rachmaninoff and a lot of contemporary music. It was only by chance I got into earlier stuff partly because I started playing harpsichord for groups in the 1980s and yes, I don’t know why I ever thought baroque was boring but I thought of it as rather crystalline, this sort of perfect thing, and then I started working with certain theatre directors who were staging Handel operas particularly, and that was such an eye-opener, the depth of passion and also how very human that work is. We’re so used to opera being very telescoped, like Mimi and Rudolfo meet and three minutes later they’re singing a love duet and we accept that: “That’s opera, isn’t it?” But I always sat there and thought, “Oh come now, that’s absurd, really!”
In a Handel opera, for all the convoluted plots – well, it’s not really about those plots at all. After every recit you’re hearing someone for ten minutes, exposing their inner life, their inner thoughts, in real time, with two sentences – which is actually a very human thing. I spend a lot longer than ten minutes if there’s a grief in my life of an issue, so it does require a certain amount of recalibration in terms of the way we listen to something. Great are the artists who can really invest the repetition of these words in a way that makes clear the same words but constantly gives them a new meaning – like a person holding up a prism; it’s the same prism, but your turning it to the right, then the left, the light moves through it in a slightly different way. It’s a prism, it’s the way we use words. You can say ‘I love you’ as words, but how many different ways can we say those three syllables? That’s what Handel, for me, really explores. And this apparent simplicity, and some would say rigidity, of form becomes something really powerful.
Structurally it reveals so much, but often it feels like some people can get hung up on those repetitions; my mum used to say, “The music is all the same from this point on” – but it isn’t…
.. and that applies just as much to non-opera music! I’ve had discussions with orchestra members performing Mozart and Haydn symphonies and they’ll say, “Oh God, do we have to do the repeat? It’s just the same music…!” but you look at later repertoire where the composer writes out the repeats, and they don’t have a problem with that. You put a double bar there and they go, “Oh, let’s just go on, why are we doing it at all?”
And for opera especially, there is that theatrically rich territory related to that element…
… so it’s a prism as you say, but sometimes one requiring strength training for arms and shoulders to hold it up, and especially to hold it up in a way that allows the seeing of new things. How much do you think working those arms and shoulders is necessary when coming to something new? There is a debate now about preparing for classical events beforehand – what’s your take?
In terms of telling the story, I don’t… well, I mean, sometimes I don’t think a lot of these pieces are about the actual stories, they’re stories which were well known in the 18th century, it’s not like people came to Alcina going, “Hmm, I wonder what happens?” Everyone knew the story of Orlando Furioso; what the composer was doing was taking a snapshot of the middle of that book and exploring these characters, so to me it’s all about character, I mean plot is really secondary.
In terms of doing the homework before you go, of being a good listener, and/or getting the most out of enjoying a performance, I mean, different people have different ways of approaching it; a lot of people say, “Oh we always listen, we start couple weeks before going to this or that, it’s how, so we know what we’re coming to and understand it all” – and I think that’s fine. But equally, personally, I love going to pieces that I’ve never seen or heard before and not really doing that sort of study – not because I’m lazy, but I’d rather do it afterwards, so if I see something, if it can’t interest me on a surface level, more often than not I’m intrigued and maybe I’ll go back and see it again, or not.
Santa Fe Opera with the Jemez Mountains in the background. Photo: Robert Godwin
Looking into it later depends on the circumstances in which one experiences it in the first place, though. In Santa Fe the venue is outdoors; how does that affect music-making?
In acoustical terms it’s a very good – it doesn’t feel like an open-air theatre. It’s really a remarkable pit and stage area which allows the sound to be as good as any indoor theatre. I think the audience knows what this mysterious alchemy is if they’ve been before. And I think if you go there and you sit under the stars and watch the sunset go down behind the mountains – and often directors have the back of the set open during the sunset so you look through the set so the mountains become part of the set –I think then, if you hear some profound, beautiful music in amidst all that, it’s like you just drank three bottles of wine. It’s so rich and so powerful. And I would say it’s more powerful for some than going to a city centre opera house, battling the traffic and all that. Working (in Santa Fe) is the same thing; every morning, you drive up the hill with yet another beautiful cloudless sky, and you see these incredible gardens and rehearsal spaces, which are outdoors as well. I find that people’s spirits are so open because there’s something about that landscape and way of working that makes people happy. Musicians, by and large, have difficult working conditions, I mean for some places, not all – not everybody has what’s (in Santa Fe), which is very much a place of hard work as well. It’s not summer camp; it’s an Eden where people expect you to work very hard and the level is extremely high, so it’s not a pool party.
But how much of those expectations have changed now because of the pandemic? I would imagine there’s an extra layer of pressure.
I was very bullish when we were talking about reopening there, and about how exactly we can reopen. There were many questions: can we have a chorus onstage? Will we all have to wear masks and be distanced? A lot of decisions had to be made in February-March even though we didn’t rehearse until June. The thinking was, “In June it might be better, or “In June it might be worse!” We had to make a lot of those decisions, but I was very keen to quash this thinking of, “Oh look, it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the chorus onstage, the audience is so grateful we have a season at all!” I said, “No, no, no, that’s not part of this story! We have to be good, I’ll not have people making allowances.” “Oh, but we could be creative! We could use the restrictions in a creative way!” – this attitude to just sort of cop out and say, “Let’s work with those rules, everyone will be fine with them” – well I wouldn’t be fine. I would not be fine.
But that move toward allowances, of relegating everything to digital without any demonstration of willpower with regard to live presentation’s return, has become been a frustratingly common norm for certain companies. It makes me question whether the people working there really understand the nature of what they supposedly want to produce.
Well, this magic of the live experience is not just a thing in Santa Fe, which is particularly a unique experience – you don’t get that everywhere! – because it’s not something strictly related to landscape or setting .. it’s this thing of listening to music, together, with fellow human beings who you don’t know, who maybe you don’t even say hi to, maybe you sit there on your own, but you are all there, communing, for the evening, and you then disperse to all parts of the world. And you were all just at a totally unique performance, an experience you will never be able to replicate. When you watch a stream or edited concert, you know when you press ‘play’ what it’s going to sound like, every time, guaranteed, absolutely – it will be the same. But there is no danger, there is no excitement.
The whole point of live theatre is that we, as human beings, can communicate with each other – artists, performers, musicians, and audiences do that too, just by being there, together: loving it, hating, being indifferent to it. It is really important as a society that we do this.
So if you don’t get that, well, then anything I say will not make a difference anyway, but it will for the people who do come and experience it and get something out of it, or not – not everyone does! But then, not everyone who goes to a restaurant likes the food either; what’s important is that we go and eat, and that we can still do it, together.
It’s the act itself that counts.
Now with your live tour now, you have an amazing cast…
Yes we sure do! In a way one of the nice things… well, if you can say that about pandemic, but the fact is, when things like this are done at such a high level in these conditions, a lot of people are saying, “I want to be a part of that!” So a lot of singers through this period have looked at their lives, having had almost two years off now, and said, “I want to do the work that I really want to do; I’m just not going to take every single thing and be crawling up that ladder the whole way through my career, but pick the things I’ll get some personal satisfaction from as well.”
But that satisfaction, those projects existing at all, is, in some places, rather miraculous. Alexander Neef said in our conversation last year that he thinks classical companies should be embracing risk more than ever right now, so to your point, perhaps musicians are picking and choosing, but there has to be the will to make those projects a reality in the first place.
I think we have to be more aggressive with that. At The English Concert, we have a fantastic manager who is also our principal viola – I think having a musician there in that position is a good thing, at least from my point of view. He knows the value of an orchestra of working, and of being part of an orchestra; it’s a group of people, together. And if that group is sitting at home, not working, well, you’re not really an orchestra, are you? It’s not like being a resting actor; an orchestra, by definition, plays together, and it’s really important we are working, together. For instance, this tour was meant to be bigger, we were meant to go to Bogota for ten days, then go back to the U.K. via New York; Bogota got cancelled, it was put on the red list until a few days ago. We took the choice to cancel that, and our manager said, “That’s fine, we’ll do a week of recording in New York then” and I thought, “Oh really?” because I knew this tour would be busy – but actually, I also thought, “Good, yes, let’s keep working, let’s keep doing this.” So let’s keep knocking on doors, sometimes kicking those doors down – and let’s keep doing it.
Beethoven was one of the first composers whose works I was determined to play on the piano. His works were butterflies I aimed to net, stare at, make my own, and release anew, knowing they were never wholly mine to keep. He asked all of me as a young player. When I felt I couldn’t give anymore, he kept asking, nay, barking, anyway, for more, ever more, to push past my perceptions of limitation. Some days I felt defeated, other days, prodded, needled, poked, as if this long-dead, stern-looking German man was wielding a little stick aimed straight at my pride, those two opening notes of his Third Symphony like sharp jabs at the ribs urging, “Weiter gehen!” (“Go further!”). It was a sentiment voiced loudly by my mother, who didn’t take kindly to sighing silences or creative keyboard noodling.
“Back to Beethoven,” she would say, as another moan of desperation rose from the Baldwin grand. “Back to your work.”
“I can’t do it!”
“You can so; work it out. Do it. You’re not finished.”
I sit at a different kind of keyboard now, still alternating between silence and silliness. The act of pushing against perceived limitations is a feature of any creative life, the act of “return” rendered a million different ways; such recognition, and the change borne from it, matters as much as the act itself. Get back to Beethoven; you’re not finished. And so I did return, investing in a Bärenreiter edition of Beethoven’s symphony scores last year, edited by Jonathan Del Mar. The music of Beethoven has been with me for so long (one of the first orchestral performances I remember attending was his Sixth Symphony), so owning them seemed like a logical step. However, the act of going through them initially kicked open doors to questions which heretofore hadn’t been so stark, so bug-eyed, so snitty and snotty and snide: what could I, sans music degree, sans formal Conservatory education, sans musicological knowledge or direct orchestra-playing experience, possibly have to say, write, or contribute? What was I hoping to prove?
The plaque outside Pasqualatihaus in Vienna marking it as one of Beethoven’s residences. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Yes, I’ve been to the Pasqualatihaus, and yes, I know so many works by heart, as it turns out; they are not monoliths to me but shards of someone’s soul – questioning, conflicted, difficult, a flickering wall of stained glass, some of it cracked – but what do I know? What value does my voice have, if any? Whose validation am I seeking, and why? Was (Is) my mother’s energy making itself felt across the decades? Studying Beethoven’s symphonies has meant wrestling with demons; like sitting at the piano years ago, some days are better than others, and some days the voices are louder, or softer, depending on just how much I choose to dampen that pedal, open that door, stick to the task at hand. Consistency has been a good way to exercise curiosity, to push against the limitations I feel so often hampered by and judged over. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the softer voice at that cracked stained-glass window whispering that even without knowing the technical names for certain aspects, I can still intuit the larger things they hope to express – and there is value in that. The language may be lacking, but the components that both anchor and surpass that language (curiosity, commitment, compassion) are not.
Pasqualatihaus. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Months of studying scores has also highlighted, however inadvertently, the extent to which Beethoven is largely misunderstood and misrepresented in popular culture. One’s perceptions of any artist will understandably alter throughout time, experience, maturation; I once thought of the composer as a true and admirable revolutionary (indeed a youthful projection), whereas I think of him lately as largely shaped and informed by a deeply religious and conservative faith, an aspect composer James MacMillan explored in a chat for The Spectator. This specific spiritual side of the composer isn’t as widely explored as perhaps it ought to be, which is a pity; it goes against the rebel-image of course, but understanding the immense role of religion greatly expands one’s appreciation – of Fidelio, some symphonies, and various choral works like Missa Solemnis, to say nothing of the many subsequent works inspired by them, MacMillan’s oeuvre included. Again, the religious Beethoven doesn’t gel with (and perhaps isn’t as easy a sell as) the Frowning Rebel Genius, which is of course so tied to the trend of ‘cancelling’ him. The clichéd version of Beethoven which tends to live in the popular imagination is one based not on knowing scores or history, but on programmatic oversaturation tied to the realities of contemporary box office sales, a reality which so rarely (if sadly) actualizes any real responsibility to intelligently and challengingly link needed contextualization with performance and modern repertoire in any enlightening way. There’s something frightening to many contemporary programmers about intelligence, about asking audiences to read, learn, grow, to be surprised and yes, to be challenged and forced to contemplate, as if such activities are a collective form of elitism; rather interestingly, that is one thing not evident (at least to this student) in Beethoven’s actual output. What with Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations largely called off because of COVID in 2020, perhaps his 251st will be marked by brighter pathways to more adventurous programming tying context, music, and history more closely together in a spirit of creativity, curiosity, and pushing those limitations. One can hope.
Writer Jessica Duchen is very skilled at linking such things, and doing so in ways that beguile and delight. Her latest novel, Immortal (Unbound), uses the famous “Immortal Beloved” story involving Beethoven as a jump-off to more fully explore the man, his times, his loves, and his music. Released in late 2020, the novel treats aspects of the (highly romantic) story, the world it unfolded, and Beethoven himself, with utmost care and respect, and features illuminating details as well as a sharp ear for dialogue. Jessica is known for her novels which blend music, history, character, and gripping narrative so seamlessly; her 2008 novel Hungarian Dances (Hodder & Stoughton) is one I find particularly affecting, wonderfully connecting the visceral experience of violin-playing across the ages with the search for identity, family, home, culture, contentment, love. Jessica is also a highly accomplished journalist and was classical music correspondent for The Independent from 2004 to 2016; her work has been published at The Observer, The Guardian, BBC Music Magazine, as well as The Sunday Times. In addition to five works of music-history fiction, she has authored biographies of composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Phaidon, 1996) and Gabriel Fauré (Phaidon, 2000). She has also worked with composer Roxanna Panufnik on libretti for choral works and operas, including Silver Birch, a work commissioned by Garsington Opera and, in 2018, shortlisted for an International Opera Award. Garsington’s Youth Company also commissioned two Oscar Wilde-related works from Jessica: The Happy Princess in 2019, with composer Paul Fincham; and The Selfish Giant with John Barber; it has been postponed to 2021.
Jessica and I spoke late last month, about the pangs of editing, the joys of crowdfunding, the beauty of simplicity, and just what her beloved “Luigi” might think about our COVID era.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
It still was, wasn’t it? His work is so much about compassion, or its absence.
Exactly, and if we had to have a big composer anniversary I’m glad it was him; he gives so much in his music.
You reflect much of that intensity of feeling through your work. How did this particular book come about?
It felt different partly because I was writing in the first person, it’s something I’ve not managed to do successfully before; I’ve tried with other novels those are the ones sitting at the bottom of the cupboard with no hope of completion, this is the first time it’s worked, which has made a difference. As for the research, the wonderful thing is that so many have done so much research already – there is an awful lot to read! And you can find something about whatever aspect of his life and world you want to know about; you don’t need to sift through and decipher every handwritten letter, it’s all been done.
The “Immortal Beloved” story is fairly well-known in classical circles; how daunting was it to tackle as the subject of a whole novel?
It really is a case of, hold your nose and jump, and from a great height! It was about seven years or so ago I was asked to do a talk about Beethoven and women, and I didn’t know that much about it all then, and I started reading and researching, and thought, bloody hell, amazing stuff; it gets under your skin, and I can see how people get obsessed with these stories and with different theories. I started following some of the trails where some of this stuff came from, and why certain things have been pushed and others hampered, for one reason or another, and I discovered it’s not to do with the stories but the people who have been pushing them or otherwise, in many cases; the fact that the Beethoven-Haus Bonn is very much behind the Josephine scenario made me think they probably knew something, because if anyone knows, they do! It was a Canadian musicologist, Rita Steblin, whose work was the most useful; she’d written articles about this, getting other sides to the story. Tragically she died last year; I’d been trying to find and write to her, to get in touch and ask her some things, and I couldn’t find her anywhere, then I met the director of the Beethoven Haus in January in London, and he told me she had died a few months prior. I was horrified. Anyway she’s an absolute heroine, and she was Canadian. She wrote a ton of articles about Beethoven and Schubert and lived in Vienna.
Integrating research, without it being too granular, with storytelling, is must have entailed some tough creative choices.
Any historical novelist or biographer will tell you that you use about 10% of the actual work, the groundwork, that you’ve done, and the thing is to not get so bogged down in detail that you close the thread of the narrative. I had to cut a huge amount out of the book, and it’s more than 400 pages still – it would’ve been more than 500 without those cuts. Sometimes there will be an editor who will say, “Right, get rid of this” and other times you have to be absolutely ruthless, I had one chapter, a digression about the birth of romanticism and all sorts of literary and slightly tangential things that were going on that touched on Beethoven, and Tom (my husband) read it and said “That’s great, I love this!” – and my editor went, whoosh, out with the red pen, and I thought, “Oh nooooo!!” But I can see she had a point; it was bogging down the narrative. If you go on too long (in such tangents), you’ll lose people.
… as well as the momentum of the narrative.
Yes. I’ve had comments saying, “This is a long book but it has a pace of its own.” I tried to pick up the pace as it goes along, so you squelch yourself into that world with a lot of detail and character near the beginning, and then the plot starts, but if you think about it, most really serious books about Beethoven are over 1000 pages long, and there is reason for that: he needs that much. He’s very difficult to capture.
Studying the scores underlined, for me, the role of changeability in Beethoven’s creative endeavors and life overall; what did you find as you wrote this?
Absolutely – to me the heart of Beethoven is his passion for variation, and in a way, he’s always writing variations – nothing stays the same, everything is in motion, every time a theme comes back, it’s a little bit different. Yet there is this motif which is very attached and some people think that has something to do Josephine – it may or may not be the case – but his motifs are not exactly the same. They are always a little bit different when they come back.
I’m curious what you make of the Beethoven you encountered in your research and writing, and the criticism of his work and seeming dominance of the classical music canon.
The first thing that really comes to mind is that I am all for performing a wider range of repertoire; I think it’s absolutely essential that we diversify the music being played and recognized. We have to hear more women composers, particularly because there is still this attitude that they somehow aren’t as good – we have to hear more music by them, and composers of color; I’d much rather go to a concert of music that I don’t know than music that I do know, because it’s more interesting. When you’ve been going to concerts as long as I have and sometimes reviewing them too, you get really tired of some of the stuff out there, especially the big Late Romantic symphonies. You think, “Come on, something else now!”
On the other hand, I don’t see why hearing more music by other composers means we have to kick out, wholesale, the great figures of the past. I mean, there is this attitude in some quarters of, “Clara Schumann is great and Robert Schumann is crap” – no he wasn’t, he was incredible, but they are two different artists doing two different things, who are important for two different reasons. Both need recognition, and I don’t see what’s the matter with that.
I think Beethoven would whole-heartily support contemporary composers being programmed alongside with his work, and he very much understood the pressures of market forces and money woes.
Oh, I think he was quite canny.
I think he had to be…
This is very true.
Might we , when we come out of COVID, have a more contextualized Beethoven? Or do you see a move toward entrenchment of The Hits?
I really don’t know. I have very little sense of how things will unravel or ravel-up again, and I don’t know how long this whole thing is going to take to pass, I don’t know what will happen politically. In the UK we crashed out of the EU, and the entire music scene will be badly affected; the realities of many simply haven’t been taken into account. I really have no idea; we have fantastic musical life, and we have people who are throwing it out the window, so when things get thrown out the window it tends to be the case you get an entrenchment of the surefire sellers because people are anxious and they’re desperate, and they are scared of taking risks – that’s when there’s a pulling back of the boundaries rather than a pushing out of them. So … I don’t know. I think Beethoven’s been picked on because it was his anniversary so he was the highest-profile composer around, thus he’s an easy target.
I recently watched an old performance of the Leonore overture, and I wondered if such criticisms aren’t as much related to pedestrian performance practises as to decontextualized programming…
I had to listen to a recent CD recording of Beethoven 5, related to something I was involved in weeks ago, and I could not bear this one particular recording; I thought it was brutal. Honestly, I found it unlistenable. And I was quite shocked, because there are many others who think it’s wonderful.
Do you think there’s value in having that intense a reaction and that extent of divergent thought, though? I wonder if that’s the point.
It could be, but it’s a pity it’s necessary. Here’s where we come back to the need to diversify repertoire: if we heard Beethoven 5 slightly less often there would be no need for people to tear it to pieces and trample it underfoot to make a point. I don’t think trampling Beethoven 5 underfoot has anything to do with what it’s about.
That goes back to programming. We haven’t been able to attend many things and a lot has been forcibly reprogrammed as a result; what stage were you at with the book?
I was in the middle of editing when COVID struck, in March 2020.
Did that experience change your process?
I don’t think it changed it but it made it more meaningful. It was my way of escape. It means when it was locked down it was fine, I don’t have to phone people up and say, “Sorry, I can’t make it; I have to work” – I could just… work. There were a few bits where I accentuated and honed in on certain things and did them slightly differently, for instance there’s a bit where Therese is going to stay in Vienna to hear Fidelio although Napoleon’s army is marching in; she’s pig-headed and she is not leaving town until she’s heard Fidelio! There are some descriptions of the atmosphere around Vienna at that time, about how she felt in the face of this tremendous change, when everyone else is leaving town and the place is empty and she’s on her own and doesn’t know what’s going on. There were bits like that that got in at a late stage because of what happened through 2020.
The crowdsourcing for this novel seems like a smart way to go about a creative project; do you think it points the way to a future for creative output, especially for writers? Doing it in normal times is one thing but doing it now is quite another.
It’s tricky to say. It’s the third book I’ve done with Unbound, the other two that I did first were finished before I took it to them; Ghost Variations (2016) was with them, for instance. I’d hit a rocky patch because after the financial crash in 2008, a lot of authors, if they weren’t Dan Brown or Salman Rushdie, found themselves turfed on their tails; there were a lot of us writing pretty good books but we were in the middle ranks, and we got kicked out (of publishers). I’d been taking around Ghost Variations and I was very fed up with the sort of responses I was getting to it; I knew it was a good story and I knew it was topical. Eventually I found Unbound – I filled in a form on their website and they came back and said, “We’d like to have this as one of the founding books on our list” and that was my first go on crowdsourcing; I got the money together in 12 days. I surprised everyone! I love the people, the design, the editorial standards, everything is really good; Unbound is a traditional publisher but it crowdfunds.
The Beethoven book was a little bit different, as I hadn’t written it yet, and I knew I would have to do it damn fast to get it out in time for the Beethoven anniversary. I had a drink with the guy who was my editor at the time and said, “I’ve got this amazing story, I really want to write it” and he said, “Well if you can do it by about this time next year then we can probably.” He told me what they needed, and I thought it was just about doable; I’d done all the research, I just hadn’t sat down and put anything together, I hadn’t really had the guts to take the plunge on writing a book. I thought I could do with some talks and didn’t see myself doing a whole novel, but I thought, “It’s the anniversary year and I’m going to kick myself if I don’t do this, it’s now or never” so I jumped. The crowdfunding was quick, it all came together in three months – quite fast. For something else it might take a few years.
So how much do you see crowdfunding being a model for creative endeavours in 2021 and beyond then?
I know quite a number of really interesting music projects being funded this way, so I think in a way it’s books who are the ones late to the party; musicians have been doing this for a while! I think it’s a little bit difficult – that’s probably an understatement because of the pandemic situation. There’s an awful lot of people who have no work and their finances are very stretched; people are extremely worried and won’t know if they’ll get their work back, and there are others who get government support or don’t get government support, here it’s a very capricious system and it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have full-time jobs, they are professional people who’ve been furloughed and are still getting paid and they have nothing to spend money on; they can’t go abroad, they can’t go on holiday, they can’t go to the theatre or concerts, there’s no point going shopping since we’re all living in our jogging pants and are getting far fewer haircuts. That means people will have some cash sitting around and might have time to support books and music… so if you can target the right market, there might be something to be had through crowdfunding I don’t think of crowdfunding as ideal, and I don’t think it would become the way to do things – but it’s an alternative, and it’s quite fun. You are building a whole community around your project as you are creating it, which is something I really enjoy.
Building community is very tied to the equalizing effect of the internet; some roll their eyes at the digital world but others (like me) wouldn’t have a career without it, and the related efforts of building and engaging a virtual community…
Absolutely – and it is real work.
… although as you mentioned, it’s difficult to know what to say about online performances because they are not visceral…
It’s not the same as being there. It can’t be.
… and I am not sure of the value of doing fancy filming of performances for online broadcasts. I like the Wigmore Hall concerts because they’re simple; I can focus on the sound itself.
They are elegant and so simple, the way those are done! I suppose it’s easy to do in the Wigmore though.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
There’s something to be said for simplicity in 2020 going into 2021! What do you think he would make of our current times?
That’s a very good question, because if you think about the world he lived in, the life expectancy was something like 45, and he did well to get to 56. Loss and death were a huge part of everyday life for people in the 19th century in a way they are not today, when everything tends to be very sanitized, so (hygienic practise) would be something he would be surprised to see. Also he had the Napoleonic Wars to deal with; that was a really eye-opening side of the research I did, because for some reason, my history studies at school and university in music courses, did not touch on Napoleon at all – somehow we studied Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven (at Cambridge) but not what was going on at the time. And millions of people died because of Napoleon.
And that’s such an important thing to know when approaching Beethoven’s work…
It really is! Quite honestly, if I think about it, Beethoven in our times would say, “Get over yourselves! Do the sensible thing! Wear a mask! Do the hands-face-space thing, and be glad you have these hygienic and technical things to keep you alive and connected – you’ve got so many advantages!” And he’d say “Come on, make the most of what you can; you’ve got all of this stuff now that I didn’t have… pull yourselves together! Get on with it and be productive!” That’s what I think he’d say, but I could be wrong.
Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan
One of my last experiences of live vocal music in 2020 was hearing Ermonela Jaho perform live at Wigmore Hall as part of Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The acclaimed soprano made her recital debut, together with pianist Steven Maughan, to a packed hall, tackling an ambitious program of works consisting of French and Italian repertoire in memory of soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), who originated many of the roles in the works being presented. As The Guardian‘s Tim Ashley wisely noted, Jaho’s artistry “is rooted in a deep identification with her chosen repertoire that results in performances of unsparing veracity and tremendous emotional honesty. In recital, as on stage, her ability to expose a character’s psyche in seconds is utterly remarkable.” I came away feeling not weakened but awakened, as much entranced by Jaho’s lilting phrasing in “Sérénade” (Gounod) as stunned by her plaintive “Tristezza” (Tosti), the honesty of her emotion clear in light shades, dark tones, and everything in between.
The evening offered a tantalizing preview of Anima Rara, Jaho’s third album with Opera Rara, set for release on 25 September via Warner Classics, and recorded with Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana and conductor Andrea Battistoni. The album, like the recital, is a tribute of sorts to Storchio, but is also a deeply moving showcase of the innate lyricism and emotional honesty which are so much a part of Jaho’s artistry. Known and rightly celebrated for her visceral stage performances, Jaho, who began her operatic career as a teenager in her native Albania, has appeared at a number of famous houses (The Met, Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, Teatro Real, Opéra national de Paris, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Royal Opera) in a range of dramatic and demanding roles, including the titular Anna Bolena, Suor Angelica, and Thaïs, as well as Mimi in La bohème, Violetta in La traviata, Liú in Turandot, Desdemona in Otello, and, perhaps most famously, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, a role she is set to reprise next month at Greek National Opera. Amidst the fourteen tracks featured on Anima Rara, Jaho seamlessly connects head and heart through a kaleidoscope of vocal colors via verismo, the late 19th/early 20th-century style of opera which uses real-life settings and characters as a means by which of attaining a greater degree of naturalism, and, I would argue, psychological familiarity.
Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan
Confession: I was not the biggest fan of verismo until I heard Jaho live and subsequently on this album. Her attention to detail is so connected to emotional expression as to be indistinguishable; the transitions between notes, the considered pauses, the smart phrasings – they all allow a vivid series of pictures to be created in one’s mind. I felt I was actually seeing and starting to know, at a human level, many of the women Jaho here embodies in sound. Some of the narratives verismo favours are indeed soapy (revolving around sex, jealousy, and rather teenaged ideas about, and reactions to, the experience of love and its confusion with infatuation), but the emotions behind them are, thanks to Jaho’s endearing approach, made wholly authentic, and communicated with a graceful, smart blend of technical knowingness and soulful embrace. As Ashley wisely noted, the veracity is unsparing, which makes for not only a gripping listening experience, but one capable of changing one’s perceptions entirely. Bravo indeed.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi is the Artistic Director of Opera Rara, and has worked with Jaho on various occasions, including in 2018 in a production of Les contes d’Hoffmann at De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, and in 2010 at La Monnaie on La bohème, in a production directed by Andreas Homoki. Maestro has a wide breadth of knowledge and experience leading various Italian works (Puccini, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Giordano, Cimarosa, Pizzetti, Montemezzi) at a wide variety of houses, including The Met, the COC, Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Deutsche Oper, Den Norske Opera, Oslo, his homebase of Welsh National Opera (where he is Conductor Laureate), and most recently, Fondazione del Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence. There exists a deep appreciation for both the vocality and the unique brand of theatricality the music featured on Anima Rara demands, a blend of the familiar (Verdi’s La traviata; Massenet’s Manon; Boito’s Mefistofele; Catalani’s La Wally; Puccini’s La bohème and Madama Butterfly) and unfamiliar (Giordano’s Siberia; Massenet’s Sapho, Leoncavallo’s version of La bohème, a trinity of Mascagni works including Lodoletta, L’amico Fritz, and Iris, in which Jaho was to have made her role debut at Teatro Real de Madrid in May, prior to the COVID cancellations). The conductor is effusive in his praise of Jaho and her inherently dramatic approach, but he is also simply marvelous in explaining the reasoning behind that approach – its technical demands, its musicality, the need for watchfulness in its application within the context of verismo. Following this are the soprano’s own thoughts on the album and its tie with that famous emotional honesty, the nerves that went along with her recital debut back in February, and why thinking of every stage appearance as her first and last is such a central part of her creative approach.
Carlo Rizzi: “Music Becomes A Part Of Her Life When She’s Singing”
Ermonela’s vocal acting, live and on Anima Rara, is so effective that she made me reconsider my ideas about verismo.
Actually I think you’re absolutely on with saying “vocal acting” – it’s fantastic, this expression, because that’s exactly what she does. With the bel canto and more classical things like Mozart, of course you do things with the voice but there is something in the sound and the way you have to deliver the words in verismo that is very particular, and this, in a way, makes it or breaks it for many people, because it’s not a way we are used to expressing ourselves anymore. The verismo, the language of the verismo and in particular the Italian language, is very full on; it’s like if you have a lot of water in a rather small pipe, it’s a little bit of pressure, and some people like it and some don’t like it, but it’s definitely necessary to have. Ermonela knows not only how to use the voice but how to lead the part, and that is really necessary – you cannot do verismo otherwise, it becomes empty. When I met her she was doing lighter roles, but she has really, I think, passed through these sort of, I don’t want to say “bigger” roles, but this more mature phase of her voice, seriously, yet she has not lost the freshness which is important to keep, even if you sing with a fuller voice.
Your water-pipe/language metaphor is apt; it’s like she gives just enough to keep your thirsty but not enough to soak you through.
Well Ermonela is a very good actress – it’s that simple. When I met her and we worked together, I really got very much enamored with her way of performing the music. Now there are many singers that fall into music because they don’t have the capacity to act, but she does – it’s not fake with her. I remember we did in Brussels, some years ago now, La bohème and at the end of this performance, we were both in tears and embracing each other, because the emotion she was putting in the voice, not just tearing hair out but in the voice, was feeding me and I was giving that (energy) back to orchestra. When this happens with a singer it’s fantastic, it’s not just one doing what the other wants, but is really what vocal music should be: it should be the orchestra entering into the voice, and vice-versa. With her it’s very easy because this is what she believes in, it’s never singing just to be singing – it’s singing matched to the expression.
Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
That attention to text – open vowels, repetitive sounds, their placement – that level of detail…
… this is actually what singing should be! Singing is talking at a higher level; when you talk, people talk lalala, fast, but if you really want to communicate, you need to linger on certain notes, give a shade to this or that, that is the point, the shape of the phrase and shape of the language. This happens in talking and also when one sings. For example when I work with young singers, immediately I understand how some can pronounce very well but they don’t have a clue how the thing goes, or one does a little slip as a musician but they know which place in the phrase the word occupies and this comes through even if you don’t know the language – that’s the point: if there’s a shape or a journey in the phrase, it goes to the listener, even if the people don’t know the language. Ermonela is very good at this; the music becomes, not corny, but part of her life when she’s singing, and I think she’s very honest about it, it’s not just a gesture.
That honesty complements her work with Opera Rara. There has to be an approach to presenting and performing these works as more than mere novelties or curiosities; there has to be as much intelligence for things like Lodoletta as for Traviata…
Yes, that is the understanding of the style, because if you don’t understand the style… an allegro isn’t just an allegro; there are allegri that are sometimes slower and largi that are sometimes faster, it’s how the style goes. Sometimes the approach is only technical, like “This is what is written” rather than, ‘Let’s get into the music: what is the message and the flavour here?”, where you are looking at and understanding the vocal development of the vocal line; if you look at that, 90% of the work is done, it’s clear, this is the way the composer was writing. Of course I’m not saying every composer is the same, but when you have composers who worked in the same field and era, chances are the approach to the written note was more or less the same, and this is what is important in terms of performing the underpinning style – Ermonela understands this sort of context entirely.
Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
Ermonela Jaho: Speaking Through The Voice
Anima Rara is indeed transportive – listening to it, I was taken back to that night at Wigmore Hall but also very much into the worlds of these characters; they feel vivid hearing you do them.
That was my goal, because I feel some empathy, and, I can’t find the right word… the music transports me into that dimension, it feels like living in that world. Sometimes – it will sound crazy – but sometimes I think, if you believe in other lives, I’ve been a Suor Angelica, a Violetta, a Madame Butterfly, all the roles or arias I’ve sung, I can’t explain it but I enter that dimension and I believe in every single word I sing; it’s not only the singer, of course you need to have done the homework, to have the technique, the sound has to be there no matter what – but all of it is in service of what I’m singing, even with the imperfections. The vulnerability connects with people, and the imperfections too – we need to feel the fear, the joy, and I try to go to those places.
Something Pappano highlighted in your conversation this summer was the humanity in your approach, which is so noticeable hearing you live but it’s palpable on the album as well, this sense of lived humanity and visceral experience, and I’m wondering if you think that quality is reflected in the vocal writing of these verismo pieces.
Yes, absolutely, because it’s theatre. In bel canto you have long lines, these arias with cabaletta, which of course you need to put your soul and everything in, the drama is there as well, but this repertoire, verismo, it’s so direct, sometimes it’s like a dialogue, like a movie. When you need the pause to breathe, not just taking your time because you’re hitting a high note after the pause, it’s a pause of breathing the actual emotion – and sometimes the silence could be more dramatic than an explosion of certain notes. That’s theatre, but it’s tricky as well because you have to balance being believable against being ridiculous; sometimes you can go a little bit forward, like a drama queen, but you have to be believable. If you play just the pain or the joy, maybe you can make it work in two, three moments, but the whole piece is difficult to sell, if I can say that. I’m Mediterranean, and we are louder in everything – pain and joy – but there’s still a human element; sometimes we have the words and we don’t want to say them out loud, but our soul is screaming. And you can convey that in music with the breathing, or with other little details, although with this repertoire, it’s written so straight-forward.
Rehearsing Anima Rara with conductor Andrea Battistoni in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
Your pauses and taking those breaths feel very much a part of your vocal acting; the timing and phrasings convey such an innate comprehension of the line between gripping and overwrought, because as you said, one can tip into the other easily.
Yes, and of course you can improve because it’s the kind of repertoire in my perception that is like, more, not older, but the more life experience you have, the more meaningful this repertoire is. Even to stage it is so difficult because it has to be so meaningful and you have to be … to live that story, 100%. Singing is the language of our souls. We can’t fake it. It’s something that the public will feel immediately, if you fake it. And that’s why I think it’s so difficult and interesting to go toward this repertoire and feel it’s mine. I don’t know how I can put it, but I love it, and I’m trying to improve as much as I can technically, to give that kind of liberty to my voice and express the emotions – if you don’t have a good technique, it could be only a beautiful thought, “make this phrase like this and that phrase like so” – but if you don’t give it all with your voice, your breathing, with all your body and soul onstage… they remain only beautiful notes in a score, and you fail as a singer and as an artist.
You also said to Pappano, and you have done before as well, that you always approach each performance as if it is the first and last of your life; I’m wondering if that applies to recital work. I was genuinely amazed at your pacing.
I tried to pace, believe me! It was a challenge, that recital, because I’d never had a recital on my own, not because I didn’t believe in it – I love it so much and would love to repeat it – but because I’m so shy as well, to be honest with you, and I let it go when I’m onstage (in opera). Somehow I feel protected and with some distance from the public – I want to feel the energy but I don’t want to feel judged. The costumes, the staging, they keep me a little distanced, and always I thought to myself, “Never will I be able to have success in singing in recital, opera is better” – but sometimes we have to challenge ourselves. What I chose was crazy to be frank, it was so long and so diverse, and I thought, “It’ll be the first and the last recital, but okay, let’s try it!” And I loved it so much though, because I thought, in that recital, like going back to that Pappano conversation, it’s my first and last appearance on the stage.
It was a dream for me to become an opera singer; I fought so much to reach the position I’m in now and for me, I won my dream, if I can say that. I endured a lot of difficulties, so now every time I’m on stage I appreciate how lucky I am. It’s about 26 years professionally now that I’ve been singing, and I don’t know if it will all end tomorrow – I want to live life in full, which sounds a little… stupid, but you know, at the moment especially, I don’t think about tomorrow, because you never know. In this situation with the virus, it brought to mind how I have suffered because I’m not onstage. Every time I am I’ve kissed the stage, because I think, “Maybe it’s my last time.” For sure a piece of my soul I leave that there, and with 100% honesty, but also embracing a spirit of risk.
It’s interesting you say this because it brings to mind Rosina Storchio, that embrace of honesty.
We always think verismo means using the biggest voice in the world, that you have to, not scream, it’s not nice! – but to be louder, because in that way you are more dramatic. When I had my first proposition to do Butterfly, I was scared, I thought, “no, never ever, I can’t sing this opera, because” – I’m really honest with my voice– “I’m a lyrical voice, not a dramatic voice.” It was 2009, and some people said to me then, “Please don’t accept that, you’ll lose your voice at the end of the First Act.” I like to read when I have time of course, and so I went to read Puccini’s letters, and in those, he is talking about Butterfly, and in there it came up, Storchio’s name; I didn’t know anything about her, but the way he wanted her to sing that opera (and similarly Mascagni in Lodoletta and Zazá), he wanted her to be the first in the role, and I thought, “Okay, let me see which kind of voice she had” – and she was a lyrical leggero, as they call it from the letters and docs we have – so why did they want her? Because, I discovered, she had a kind of pathos onstage, she was giving everything in order to be expressive but believable; she was an actress with a lyrical voice. When Butterfly didn’t have success the first time and Puccini changed the whole opera, she didn’t want to sing it, and in one of the letters of Puccini he wrote, “I think that Butterfly without Storchio becomes a thing without soul.”
From that moment , I thought, “Okay, my guts say Butterfly, or this kind of repertoire in that epoch, sounded different” – because you need that kind of fragility, because sometimes it doesn’t mean you have to be BIG; yes, for certain roles you do, but in this case, it’s why we get so moved, emotionally speaking, because we see this human being so fragile, and you have to convey that not only with your voice but in little movements – of course you try to improve, but that’s the connection, to do this kind of repertoire, this kind of drama, but the drama is in the whole story. It’s not because you somehow have to be dramatic; you are a human being, and we have all these colors, this palette of emotion. Even within the (context of) the drama, you honestly believe tragedy could happen to such a vulnerable soul.
I’m wondering about that stage presence and authenticity in relation to other work she was known for, some of which are on the album. You are known for roles like Butterfly too, but perform other lesser-known works; how does one inform the other, or does it?
I tried to follow the same philosophy I did with Butterfly: I don’t have expectations. So I think if I do something, like singing this little-known repertoire, if I put in soul and I believe 100% and try to work on the emotional part as I’ve done with Butterfly, I hope somehow it will help to bring to life this kind of music. For the first time ever I sung Siberia heard it, and… I can’t explain it to you. It was the only aria which we recorded in two tracks, immediately, because it came so naturally, I felt, I don’t know… this aria is about a love that only you know, no one knows about it, you can’t speak it to anyone… I really adore it, so maybe this will be interesting for certain houses, to bring back to life these kinds of masterpieces. We didn’t have so many rehearsals for these recordings you know, but I was in tears every time I had to repeat things. I mean, Lodoletta… my God!
Listening to these tracks made me think about Butterfly and Mimi in new ways in terms of the vocal writing and the line, the pacing, having a clear sense of character through those small details you mention…
But of course you can’t do this unless, as you said to Pappano, you feel protected.
Because teamwork means so much! I’ve had productions of Butterfly where I swear, I felt, “oh my God, my career is done now, I won’t sing this opera anymore” because I didn’t feel free to express what I had in my mind; it’s not only the voice, it’s not just, “Oh, sing your famous aria” – that’s wrong, especially in this repertoire. You have to work together and, I hate the word “sell” but you have to deliver it, as a whole story. Unfortunately not in every production do you have that (required) teamwork.
With Pappano, I felt so protected; we were working in the same direction, and I felt like a student. When you feel that way it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t matter if your picture is everywhere and people love and adore you and you have all kinds of applause – still, you are a student. Every day we are different, every day life experience shapes our souls and minds, and with music, you need to go in that direction (of learning). You really do with Pappano; he’s a dream to work with. Every time working with him you discover new things, even repeating the same phrase – he taught me from the first time we met, to never ever repeat a note twice the same way, because yes, you said it once and the second time it won’t be new, you have to find other colors. This is just the approach to take for this kind of repertoire.
(via Warner Classics)
This is something I feel I’m being educated on with each listening of the album, and Opera Rara’s work as a whole; you really come back to the more known repertoire with new ears.
That’s why I love Opera Rara; they’re very important for the opera world, not because I record with them, but really, we are students, and it’s easy to appreciate something that’s well-known and already-proven before the public, but it requires artistic vision to ask an audition to take a new look at a work of art lost in time, so Opera Rara’s vision is one I am passionate about. I mean, I’m harsh on myself (in terms of performance) here – every time after a recording session I would go home and think, “I could do better here, better there…”
But do you feel that’s a normal part of being an artist? That such perfectionism is a necessary part of creativity?
Especially for this repertoire, yes. What was my epiphany, if I can say that, is the period when I lost my parents, and I had to sing Suor Angelica then. I was numb completely. I’m sharing this episode because of how much art can mean, beyond technique, beyond the voice. Really, at that time, I was numb. I had some days before the premiere, where I was learning and creating with Pappano and everyone on the team, but only when I went onstage, when Principessa comes to Suor Angelica and says, “Your son is dead” – at that moment I felt the pain, the big loss that I had. The magic of the music… to have Pappano, as I said before, to read for this kind of emotion, the teamwork in London, they didn’t know about my loss but maybe they felt the energy, I was like a lost child. Before “Senza Mamma”, in the instrumental introduction, I was worried, like “oh my God, I’m going to stop here I won’t be able to sing it properly – there has to be a the pianissimo at this certain point, I can’t do it” and so on, and everything was discovered, and in that moment , I forget about the technique, I forgot, “oh this note has to be so precise” and… it was my soul singing, in tears, and it wasn’t Suor Angelica, the young mother crying for her son; I felt myself a little girl who had lost her parents. It doesn’t matter what age we lose our parents; it’s loss.
The effect this music had on me, I changed, completely, not because I doubted before, but at that precise moment… something changed in my mind, and I thought, “I have to work not toward the sound, because no one is perfect; some will like you, and some will like someone else, you won’t make everyone happy with your voice. But if you speak through your voice, the colors of the soul that you’re singing, and you are really honest with yourself, absolutely, it will connect with the public” and from that moment, my life changed. As an artist, I do work technically but always in service to the emotion, even risking being not-perfect, because if you don’t risk and go deep, you will never connect with the public – never, ever.
Over the past month I’ve found myself strongly gravitating to things that satisfy my curiosity and simultaneously whet it further, amidst grappling with memories of cultural restriction. Such limits, imposed by an opera-loving mother, manifest themselves in the comfortably familiar, a tendency experienced as an adult amidst periods of non-travel (i.e. now). The dynamic tension between familiar ephemerality (laziness calling itself comfort) and explorations into the unfamiliar (sometimes difficult; always rewarding) has, over the past five weeks, become increasingly exhausting to manage. I try to ride the tension even as I make attempts to be less harshly judgemental toward myself in enjoying cat gifs/Spongebob Squarepants/Blazing Saddles alongside the work of Ludmila Ulitskaya/Moomins/Andrei Rublev. There may be room for both, but I’m also determined not to let laziness squash curiosity, a curiosity I frequently had to fight to defend and cultivate.
That curiosity has found wonderful exercise in select digital work. Sir Antonio Pappano exudes (as I have noted in the past) a natural warmth as befits someone who once hosted a four-part series for the BBC exploring classical music history through the lens of voice types. “What potential for a great opera!” he exclaims of a motif from Peter Grimes he’s just played on the piano, closing his latest video for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of which the eminent maestro is Music Director. Amidst the recent glut of online material, this particular video was, when I first viewed it, a pungent reminder of my incomplete musical past, one that firmly did not feature the music of Benjamin Britten. My Verdi-mad mother would make a sour face if she happened to see the Metropolitan Opera or, closer to home, the Canadian Opera Company, was to feature certain operas (i.e. Peter Grimes, Wozzeck, Lulu) as part of their respective seasons. “That isn’t music,” she’d snarl, turning on the old stereo, where the voice of Luciano Pavarotti would invariably be heard, singing “Celeste Aida”, “La donna è mobile”, or any other number of famous arias. “That is music.”
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Highly wary of anything perceived as too intellectual, my mother’s feelings (a word I use purposely) about what constituted good music were tied to traditional ideas about art from her being raised in a conservative time and place, in 1940s-1950s working-class Canada. I wasn’t aware of the influence of these things growing up; I only felt their effects, and strongly, for a long time. One feature of childhood is, perhaps for some more intensely than others, the desire for parental approval. Only in youth does one become better acquainted with a burgeoning sense of self that might exist outside so-called realities presented (and sometimes forcefully maintained) by parents. That I did not grow up with the music of Benjamin Britten, or Berg or Schoenberg or Shostakovich, nor distressingly large swaths of Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, or very much besides, is a source of continual bewilderment, frustration, and occasional shame, feelings more pronounced lately within an enforced isolation. There’s much to learn; sometimes catching up feels overwhelming, impossible.
Many of those feelings are owing to a restrictive and very narrow childhood musical diet consisting largely of what might be termed “The Hits” of classical music. “Things you can hum to!” as my mother was wont to say; the worth of a piece of music, to her mind, lay largely here. Many may feel this is not such a bad thing, and that to criticize it is to engage in some awful form of classical snobbery; I would beg to differ. It’s one thing to enjoy something for its own sake, but it’s another to feel that’s all there is, and moreover, to dismiss any other creative and/or historical contextualizing and to belittle related curiosities. (“You’re ruining the enjoyment,” was a phrase commonly heard in my youth (and beyond), another being: “Just enjoy it and stop picking things apart!”) Being raised around the work of Verdi, Puccini, Offenbach, and Bizet, and equally famous voices (i.e. Callas, Gobbi, Di Stefano, Corelli) set me on the path I now travel, and I’m grateful. I must’ve been one of the only suburban Canadian teenagers in the late 1980s and early 1990s to have seen Pavarotti, Freni, and Hvorostovsky live (and more than once) – but it’s frustrating not to be able to remember those performances in detail, and to not know who was on the podium, or who directed and designed those productions. Blame cannot be entirely laid at my mother’s (perennially high-heeled) feet; responsibility must surely be shared with young music instructors who, probably not unlike her, simply did were not in possession of the tools for knowing how to engage and encourage a big curiosity in a small person.
Anyone who has been through the conservatory system in Canada might be familiar with the sections that were required as part of their advancing in grade books. During the years of my piano study, they were (rather predictably) chronological – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – with selections from each to be played at one’s yearly (entirely terrifying) exams. To my great surprise, I found I not only had an intuitive knack for playing the work of modern composers, but enjoyed the experience. This happy discovery coincided, rather unsurprisingly, with my teen years, though I barely understood basic elements like chord progressions, resolutions, polyphony, dissonance – these things remained largely unexplained, unexamined notions, big words dribbled out in half-baked theory classes. I played triads and diminished 5ths and dominant 7ths, but I couldn’t tell you what they meant, why they were used, or how they related to the composition and its history.
Still, I realized on some intuitive level, and partly through direct experience playing those modern works, that there was an entire cosmos I was missing. Exposure to world cinema confirmed that feeling, and led me to sounds that opened the door of discovery slightly wider; from there were trips to the local library for cassette rentals. Winter months found me alone in my bedroom, sitting on the floor, listening to the music of Prokofiev coming through my soup-can-sized headphones. This was definitely not Peter And The Wolf (which I’d loved as a small child), and though Cinderella was welcome… what would my mother make of Ivan the Terrible? Was it acceptable to play Queen’s “We Will Rock You” right after The Lieutenant Kijé Suite, or or George Michael’s “Faith” right before Alexander Nevsky? Did it make me awfully stupid and shallow? Did my intense love of dance music diminish or besmirch my desire to learn about what felt like its opposite? Was I not smart enough to understand this music? Was I always going to find certain works impenetrable? Should I stick with the tuneful things my mother would swoon over every Saturday afternoon?
Rather than resolve any of this, I stopped playing the piano. For years I had been wheeled out like a trained monkey to entertain adults, and I yearned for cultural pursuits I could call my own. My intense love of theatre and words took over my once-passionate music studies, eventually manifesting in writing, publishing, producing, and performance. The irony that my return to music came through these very things is particularly rich, if also telling. Writing about music, examining libretti, observing people, listening to dialogue sung and spoken, meditating on how various aspects of theatre transfer (or don’t) to an online setting, contemplating audience behaviours and engagements with various virtual ventures that move past notions of diversionary entertainment and ephemeral presentation – these are things which awaken, inspire, occasionally infuriate but equally fascinate. In watching Pappano’s Peter Grimes video, I recalled my experience of seeing it performed live in-concert at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest last autumn (in a driving presentation by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra and Radio Academic Choir led by Paul Daniel), and to what extent my mother might have judged my enjoyment of that experience. I’m grateful to artists who whet my curiosity, replacing the comfortably familiar with the culturally adventurous.
Violinist Daniel Hope (Photo: Nicolas Zonvi)
Violinist Daniel Hope excels at this. As well as performing as soloist with numerous orchestras from Boston to Tokyo to London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, Hope is also the Music Director of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (in San Francisco), and Artistic Director of the historic Frauenkirche Cathedral in Dresden. In this, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, he also assumed a rather special role, that of President of the Beethovenhaus Bonn. He possesses a fierce commitment to new music. Hope’s current online series, Hope@Home (presented with broadcaster Arte), is recorded live in his living room in Berlin and has become something of an online smash since its debut in March, with over a million views on YouTube. The smart daily program offers a varied array of offerings, which, over the course of 30 episodes so far, have offered performances presented within a smart context of either personal memories or well-known anecdotes (or sometimes both), creative pairings, and affecting readings, not to mention an unplanned appearance by his Storm Trooper-masked children at a recent episode’s close. Many of the works featured on Hope@Home are reductions from their orchestral counterparts, in adherence to social distancing rules, with Hope, pianist Christoph Israel, and (or) guests performing at appropriate distances. Touching but never saccharine, the program frequently enlightens on both verbal and non-verbal levels, hinting at the alchemical trinity of curiosity, communication, and reciprocity that exists as part-and-parcel of music – indeed art itself – any and everywhere, in any given time, pandemic or not.
Hope’s guestlist has been engagingly eclectic, with figures from a variety of worlds, including director Robert Wilson giving an extraordinarily moving reading of an original work set to Hope’s intuitively delicate performance of the famous “Spiegel im Spiegel”, the utterly delightful actor Ulrich Tukur, who, in his second appearance recently, exchanged lines with Hope himself in a touching performance of the final scene of Waiting for Godot. Equally powerful was an earlier episode with director Barrie Kosky which featured a poignant reading from Joseph Roth’s novel The Hotel Years, preceded by the Komische Oper Berlin Intendant dedicating the reading to those who might be quarantining alone. (I shed a few tears of gratitude at hearing Kosky’s words; the experience of being seen, however figuratively, right now, cannot be underestimated.) Another recent episode featured a very moving musical partnership between Hope and pianist Tamara Stefanovich (and later featured baritone Mattias Goerne), while another found Hope reminiscing about his experience of knowing and working with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. A regular feature includes Hope’s sharing videos of musicians performing together yet separate from various organizations; one such share was a stunning performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil by the Netherlands-based choir Groot Omroepkoor. There’s a real understanding and love of the larger cultural ecosystem on display here, one that betrays a great understanding of the ties binding music, theatre, literature, and digital culture together. That understanding was highlighted with memorable clarity for Hope@Home’s 30th episode, which heavily featured Russian repertoire. The stirring combination of elements in the episode, which featured the music of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, and (inspiringly) Schnittke, left strange, and strangely familiar anxieties over old questions, with an odd, older-life twist: am I smart enough to understand this music now? Is this really so impenetrable? What things should I be studying? Listening to? How should I contextualize this? What is missing? Will I remember the things I learn, and will be learning?
Curiosity, discipline, focus, commitment: these are the tenets one tries to abide by, even as one allows for falling off the track every now and again with Spongebob and Lily von Schtupp. Such ambitiousness isn’t related to any idea of worthiness vis-a-vis productivity (not that I don’t have some experience of the profound connection between perfectionism, workaholism, and depression) , so much as taking advantage of the lack of outer distraction, and engaging in what author Dr. Gabor Maté has termed “compassionate inquiry.” Indeed, this piece itself, inspired by various inspiring video posts, might qualify as a valid manifestation of that very inquiry. How much we will absorb what we are learning now, in this time, consciously or not? Whither enlightenment, empathy, inspiration? We may scratch at the door of transcendence, but we are seeking respite, comfort, reassurance, and for many, familiarity. It is rare and very special for me to experience things which are curiosity-inspiring but equally comforting within the digital realm, to swallow lingering awkwardness and allow myself the permission to admit and embrace my cultural curiosity through them, and to have them inspire a reconsideration of the past, one that leads to forgiveness, acceptance, and a fortifying of commitment to that path’s expansion. To tomorrow. To curiosity.
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When I last spoke with soprano Chen Reiss, she was in the middle of planning a Beethoven album. At the time, she spoke excitedly about possible selections, and happily shared a few morsels of insight her research had yielded. The fruit of that study is Immortal Beloved (Onyx Classics) a delicious collection delivered with Reiss’s signature mix of lyricism and authority, accompanied with sparky gusto by the Academy Of Ancient Music and conductor Richard Egarr. Released in March, the album is the latest in Reiss’s very ambitious discography featuring the music of Mozart, Mahler, Meyerbeer, Lehar, Schubert, Donizetti, Rimsky-Korsakov, and many others besides. The title of this latest album is an intentional reference to the name Beethoven gave to a mysterious woman in his life (the identity of the “immortal beloved” has long been a source of speculation), and showcases of the breadth of complexity pulsating within Beethoven’s early writing style. Far from fantastical, flights-of-fancy lovey-dovey ditties (the composer didn’t do those), these are sounds rooted in a very earthy sensibility. Reiss’s performance of these notoriously difficult works is a heartfelt embrace of the human experience and the myriad of emotions within. What was a thoughtful listen in former, so-called normal times takes on an even more contemplative shade in the current one.
Like many in the classical industry, the usually-busy soprano has been affected by cancellations stemming from the corona virus pandemic. Just two days into rehearsals at Semperoper Dresden last month (as Morgana in a planned production of Handel’s Alcina) the production, following others in Europe, was shut down. Thankfully, Reiss did get to record a sumptuous concert with the Academy of Ancient Music and conductor Christopher Alstaedt in early March, at Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, one featuring a selection of tracks presented on Immortal Beloved, as well as orchestral pieces honouring this, the year of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. But, as with everything at present, the future is a giant question mark. Reiss’s scheduled appearances on the stage of the Wiener Staatsoper (as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Marzelline in Fidelio), with the Rotterdam Philharmonic (Mahler Symphony No. 2), and at Zaryadye Hall in Moscow have been cancelled; her scheduled performances in June (at the Rudolfinum Prague with the Czech Philharmonic; as part of the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch with Bamberger Symphoniker; a return to Wiener Staatsoper in Falstaff) have not. It’s so difficult to say what could happen now; the fingers, toes, and figurative tines of tuning forks everywhere are being crossed throughout the classical world, for a return, if not to normal (an idea that seems to bear redefining hourly), than to something that might still allow for that magical energetic exchange between artists and audiences.
Photo: Claudia Prieler
Such an exchange is one Reiss is well-acquainted with. She has performed at numerous houses, including Teatro alla Scala, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam, and, of course, at her home base in Vienna with Wiener Staatsoper, where she has appeared over many seasons. As well as opera, Reiss has made concert appearances with the Israel Philharmonic, Wiener Akademie, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Laeiszhalle Hamburg, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Tonhalle Düsseldorf, Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre National de France, as well as with festivals like Schleswig Holstein, Lucerne, the BBC London Proms, the Enescu Festival, and the Liszt Festival Raiding. Last spring the soprano was in Belgium as part of a sweeping performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Orchester Philharmonique Royal de Liège led by Christian Arming; not long after, she jetted off to Berlin, giving divine performances in Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) at Chorin and the Philharmonie, before embarking on a multi-city tour of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Munich Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Reiss also uses her considerable teaching skills in Master Classes at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute.
The notable cultivation of a wider array of repertoire over the past while reveals an artist who is firmly determined to be her own woman – on stage, in music, and through life. Such fortitude is reflected in the selections on Immortal Beloved, not easy works, in either musical or dramatic senses, but chosen, clearly, for the arc they provide for an holistic listening experience – a theatre of the mind indeed, with intuitive heart-and-head moments. The songs reveal not only Beethoven’s approach to vocal writing, but the types of texts he was attracted to (which, as you’ll see, she expands on in our chat). Many were written in the hot intensity of youth (Beethoven was mostly in his twenties), so it follows that the texts the composer set are equally dramatic, with Big Emotions and Big Feelings, instincts that only grew in shape and complexity with time. There is a definite dramatic arc to their arrangement on the album, with the Mozartian opening aria, “Fliesse,Wonnezähre, fliesse!” (“Flow, tears of joy, flow!”), taken from Cantata on the accession of Emperor Leopold II, composed in 1790. A young Beethoven was clearly wearing his influences on his sleeve here, an instinct which weaves its way throughout Immortal Beloved, where discernible threads of not only Mozart and Haydn, but contemporaries like Johann Baptist Wanhal, Fran Ignaz Beck, François-André Danican Philidor, and notably Étienne Nicolas Méhul can plainly be heard; the bricks laid by these classical composers along the path of composition – melodic development, instrumentation, counterpoint, thematic exposition – were absolutely central to Beethoven’s own creative development, and can plainly be heard on Immortal Beloved, both in the smart vocal delivery and the knowing, quiet confidence of Egarr and the Academy.
The emotionally turbulent “No, non turbarti” (“No, do not be troubled”), scena and aria for soprano & orchestra, features Reiss carefully modulating tone, stretching vowels this way and that with just enough oomph to quietly underline the vital schlau, a quality she feels is central to understanding the piece. “Prime Amore” (“First Love”), which follows, is characterized by Reiss in the liner notes, “a startlingly mature way of looking at love’s complexities” and is conveyed with piercing tonal purity and tremendous modulation. The melodic grace of Fidelio, Egmont, and the incidental music for Leonore Prohaska (for a play by Johann Friedrich Duncker about the military heroine) highlight the soprano’s elegant phrasing, easy flexibility, and sparkling aptitude for injecting drama at just the right time, with just the right phrasing and vocal coloration; even if one doesn’t understand each word within their broader tapestry, one nonetheless feels the threads of multi-hued emotion running through and between them. Delivered with controlled passion and a watchful eye for storytelling, the selection of songs clearly convey a keen sensitivity to both the complexity of the writing and the complicated histories of their creation. As the liner notes remind us, the circumstances in which these works were written (and only sometimes performed) were less than ideal, and were frequently the source of sadness and frustration for their composer.
However, not all the material on Immortal Beloved is steeped in poe-faced seriousness; “Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken” (“If a shoe is not to pinch”) is a jovial little number, performed with a wink and a definite smile in the voice. Written in 1795 and taken from the singspiel Die schöne Schusterin (The Shoemaker’s Wife) by Ignaz Umlauf (second kapellmeister to Vienna’s Hofkapelle, or Court Chapel), its jovial lyrics, reflected in the lilting music, fit within the overall playful nature of the work (the wife’s husband is named Sock, because of course), providing the album with some needed softness amidst its many sharper edges, ones which are displayed to perfect effect with the elegant ferocity of “Ah! perfido” (“Ah! Deceiver”). The famous two-scene aria, composed in 1796 and based on the work of Metastasio, has its roots in the mythological figures of Deidamia and Achilles. The song is an extended and emotionally varied lament over the antique hero’s abandonment and rejection of the narrator; it moves rapidly between fury, despair, confusion, and longing, feelings which inextricably fuse text and music. As has been noted, Beethoven’s Deidamia could be “a younger sister of (Mozart heroines) Donna Elvira, Fiordiligia or Vitella. Yet “Ah! perfido” contains elements that can act as premonitions of Beethoven’s later vocal style, where the mosaic of changing emotions is replaced by consistent and deepened psychology.” With “Ah! perfido” Reiss has chosen to close the album on a deliberately, and quite deliciously, thoughtful note. Indeed, there is something reassuring about Reiss’s sound across the whole of Immortal Beloved, one that blends strength, beauty, and wisdom, while showcasing an inherently intelligent approach to narrative and to creating a deeply satisfying listening experience, one which, in our current times, is more needed than ever.
Like many in the music world right now, the soprano has turned to the online world for sharing her talent, and for showcasing that of others. On her Instagram account, she hosts exchanges with fellow artists as part of collaborative digital project Check The Gate. One recent exchange featured cellist Gautier Capuçon, with whom she performed in Paris as part of Bastille Day celebrations in 2019; another featured director Kasper Holten. Her virtual performance with guitarist Lukasz Kuropaczewski, of Schubert’s “Frühlingsglaube” (“Faith In Spring”, with its encouraging text, “Nun, armes Herz, vergiss der Qual! Nun muss sich Alles, Alles wenden” / Now, poor heart, forget your torment! Now all must change”), is particularly stirring. Reiss has also been featured in broadcasts of productions streamed through the Wiener Staatsoper website. Most recently she can be seen as an elegant Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante, as well as a very cheeky Bystrouška (the Vixen) in Das schlaue Füchslein (The Cunning Little Vixen) by Leoš Janáček. Here the soprano conveyed a ferociously charismatic stage presence that alternated smoothly between thoughtful notions of innocence, experience, and everything in-between. Blake’s lines that “Mercy has a human heart / Pity a human face; / And Love, the human form divine; / And Peace, the human dress” never felt more immediate than when experiencing (however virtually) her elegant intonation and lyrical vocal prowess in handling the complexities of Janáček’s delightful and truly tricky score. One positively thirsts to experience her broader explorations into the composer’s world, and fingers are crossed for things to manifest in what is currently, as for so many, an uncertain future.
More livestreams are, however guaranteed, in the interim. On May 2nd Wiener Staatsoper is set to broadcast Fidelio, which will feature Reiss as Marzelline, a role she is well familiar with, and there are sure to be more interviews and performances on her Instagram page as well. Over the course of our conversation in mid-March, just as Reiss was preparing to leave Dresden for home in Vienna, we chatted about a wide array of topics, including Immortal Beloved, as well as the impact of the cancellations, and the possible meaning Reiss is taking from the current situation.
What was the motivation to do these not-so-well-known pieces?
Actually that was just it: these pieces aren’t well-known. There isn’t any one album that has collected all these pearls for sopranos under one roof – you have to buy an entire Beethoven edition. There are so few recordings of these works, and I thought, why not? They’re so good, they should be standard repertoire, they should be recorded as often as Mozart concert arias and performed onstage. Most are early Beethoven, taken from the time he was living in Bonn and before he came to Vienna.
With “Primo Amore” for instance, for many years everybody thought it was written during his time with Salieri in Vienna; researchers found out recently, in comparing ink and paper, that it was actually written in Bonn before he came to Vienna, and to German text, and it was never published. Most of the pieces (on Immortal Beloved) were not published in his lifetime; he did revise them and had the intention of publishing them but didn’t come to do it because he was so particular and such a perfectionist. I think that he just didn’t trust himself with (writing for) the voice – it didn’t come to him as naturally or organically as writing for piano or orchestra – so (his vocal works) were just left in the drawer. Magdalena Willmann was a neighbour’s daughter in Bonn, and he was possibly in love with her, and we known he wrote (“Primo Amore”) for her. And the shoe aria (“Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken”) is an unusual piece for Beethoven; it’s a buffa aria, written a very Haydn-like style. It’s a humouristic aria, he wrote it for her also; we know that because (Willman) was soprano and had a very good lower range, and in those pieces there are a lot of passages where he’s using the lower range for an effect, either a comic effect or to express very extreme feelings. (Willman held a position as first soprano at the Bonn National Theater.) So it is very challenging because almost in every piece there are two octaves at least!
What’s that like for you as a singer? How do you approach it?
I put in ornaments – I built them in, because it’s early Beethoven and because I (recorded) it with an early music ensemble. Some of the (works) were written in 1791, 1795, around there – Haydn was still alive, Salieri was still writing, so they’re very much classical. The pitch we used to record is A=438 and not A=443 or A=442, which was used more in the Romantic time later on. It’s a very classical period (for these works) and I wanted to use ornaments, since some passages (of the songs) over two octaves. This is why I think it’s great for sopranos – you can show a very big talent of expression, of colors, of virtuosity. And with Beethoven, the virtuosity is not virtuosity for the sense of showing off the voice, but of showing big emotions: everything is bigger than life; we are pushing boundaries in every possible way, rhythmically, dynamically, harmonically. The length of the pieces is noteworthy too – “Ah! perfido” is fourteen minutes, “Primo Amore” is around fourteen minutes; no one wrote, at that time, such long songs. Mozart’s concert arias are between seven and ten minutes! Beethoven was using a bigger orchestra too. So clearly he liked to do everything big for his time.
For me it was pushing my boundaries, like “Ah! perfido”, a work which is so identified with bigger voices, like Birgit Nilsson and Montserrat Caballe and Cheryl Studer – these are big voices but I think today more and more lighter voices are singing it, and I believe this is the kind of voice that sang it in his time.
Over the last few years, that undercurrent of very dramatic, authoritative sound has been developing in your voice, though The Times described your sound as “soubrette”…
I don’t think I was ever a soubrette. I know some people say this but my voice never had this edginess, it was a light voice, a pure voice. Of course I sang roles that are soubrette-ish, like Adele (from Die Fledermaus) or Blonde (from Die Entführung aus dem Serail), but I no longer sing them – not that I can’t but I don’t find them as interesting. And I think the color of the voice… it was always an elegant voice, and in this sense I don’t know why people say it’s soubrette, I would not say it, but again, I’m very happy that they chose it as CD of the week! Everyone has a different view of voices; it’s quite individual.
You’d said when we spoke before that you don’t like being slotted into one style, a view that’s been echoed by singers I’ve spoken with since, and I wonder if that is the result of a need to be flexible now in the opera world, or of wanting to be more artistically curious.
I think it’s happening because more and more singers are taking their careers into their own hands – well, “career” is the wrong word, but singers are taking charge, yes. I think we’re tired of being told all the time what to do. When you start as a young singer, yes, you have to obey everything, you have to take every job that is being thrown at you, but when you get a little bit older, there are benefits to that, one being that you can also make your own choices and you can say, “no, I actually don’t feel like singing this role anymore, I want to do something else” and also, “I want to do my own projects” – meaning, “I no longer want to be just a team player, it’s great to be that and I love doing it when I do opera, but I also want to do my own projects where I am choosing the repertoire, where I am choosing the partners I will work with, where I choose what will written in the booklet and what will be the order of the pieces and what will be the title of the CD.” So basically, I think that it’s coming because we singers feel a need to be more, not more in control, but we want to have more responsibility over our artistic choices. And we want to present a complete product from beginning to end where we can say: this is me, this is mine, this is what I want to share with the world.
And this is why I took this (Beethoven) project. It was huge – it took me two years to realize it, to come up with the idea, the research, learning the pieces, learning the circumstances in which the pieces were written, finding the titles, choosing the photos, writing the booklet – it took a lot of time. I’m very proud of it and very, very happy because I feel that every tone that comes out of my mouth on the CD is 100% me, and no one is telling me how to sing and how to present myself, which is often the case when you do opera – they tell you everything: they choose your clothes, they choose your hairstyle, they tell you what to do on stage; how to move, how to breathe, how the lighting will be, the conductor is dictating the tempo whether it’s comfortable or not – usually you can’t say anything about it – the orchestra is playing as loud as they want to so… you’re kind of left out there … when you really have very little control of the end result, but when you do a CD and you are the soloist, you have much more control of the end result.
Some do albums because they want a broader appeal, but the songs on this album are musically complex – how were they to prepare?
They required a lot of practise and stamina – they’re long, and written… not in the most singable way, I would say. Some of them are very instrumental, some of the coloratura was composed, not for the voice but as if he wrote for violin – there are all kinds of weird intervals and sequences, and the voice doesn’t want to go there. Also dramatically they are not easy; to keep the tension, one has to have a very clear plan dramatically and vocally. “Ah! perfido” is the exception – that is an exceptionally well-written scene, dramatically and vocally, but it’s one that came later. Others, like “Primo Amore”… it is so difficult to make sense of the character, it’s like a big salad, Beethoven is throwing in every possible compositional idea that he had in there, and in certain ways, in terms of form, it’s not the best written aria! So to make sense of it was not easy. Some of these works just require you to spend more time with them – they’re not as organic as say, Lucia’s mad scene, which is pure bel canto. But I think they are very interesting!
The text is so interesting, as are the characters – strong women, independent women, women with ideals of a different world, women who want to change the world, to take charge, to take things to their hands – these are the kind women he admired, and this I why I called the album Immortal Beloved; we don’t know who she really was… maybe an ideal in his mind.
In the booklet you contrast Mozart’s female characters with Beethoven’s, which is such a smart way to contextualize the world in which Beethoven was living and writing; he would’ve known all these Mozart heroines but he went for something entirely different.
Yes, I think he appreciated Mozart very much musically but I think he was much more advanced in the ideas of the world and society as related in that specific sense, but for me, Mozart is beyond a composer, it’s musica assoluta, it’s really… the truth, like, God has spoken! It’s music itself; there can’t be anything better than that. But it’s something not human, and Beethoven is very human – he’s perhaps the most human composer. It’s wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve music in the most direct way, although not at all in a Puccini way!
What was your experience of working with the Academy of Ancient Music?
I was debating whether I should use a Viennese orchestra, and I knew I wanted an original-instrument one. The English period instruments are really so fabulous, so quick, they have a great tradition, and in recording you need people who are really “on” there. I was doing the Egmont concerts with them last summer, so I thought, why not extend it and do the whole CD with them? Egmont was the starting point, the catalyst, and the performances were around the time I wanted to record, so it just made sense. I’m very happy we did it; they sound fabulous and I really enjoyed working with Richard, his energy is wonderful.
Your vocal work has become more varied over the last two years or so. I wonder if making this album has made you approach other work differently.
Marzelline as a character is really difficult – there is a lot of text in a very uncomfortable zone of the voice; it’s parking her in the passaggio, with lots of text. I’m trying to sing her as round and delicate as I can. Strauss is a completely different story! He’s a composer I think is so wonderful for sopranos, and I’m so happy to sing Sophie (from Der Rosenkavalier) because it’s so comfortable in the voice. I love singing Zdenka (from Arabella) too – it’s more challenging rhythmically and very chromatic, so one has to be more careful and really look at the conductor, otherwise you lose it! Sophie is a more fun role but Zdenka is a very interesting character.
In Beethoven, I like singing some things. I love “Ah! perfido” – it’s a great piece. It sits so well in my voice, especially in terms of the range – surprisingly. This was the piece I was most afraid of, but it just feels very good! I love singing the shoe aria too – I think it’s fabulous and so funny and really well-written. And I really love the aria with the harp (“Es blüht eine Blume im Garten mein” /”In my garden blooms a flower”, from Leonore Prohaska). I think it’s a jewel…
It’s a favourite of mine too, although it really goes against what many think Beethoven “sounds” like…
Yes! It reminds me so very much of Schubert; you can hear him going off in that (musical) direction throughout this one. I also like “No, non turbarti” because of the text. It’s an aria of deception: (the narrator) has deceived (the female subject), and in such a masterful way… he’s really a master of deception, and it’s very interesting to see how Beethoven fits the music and the text so perfectly. Every sentence has two parts, the parts when he’s carrying her, and the parts when he’s calming her down. He’s schlau, as we say in German, very cunning… there is no storm coming at all! He’s talking about the storm inside him, the storm of his soul, not about a real storm, but a storm of emotions, and she’s not in real-life danger – the only danger for her is him! Then in the continuation –”Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro!” (“But you tremble, oh my treasure!”) – he tells her, “I’ll be here at your side, I’ll save you, and when the storm is over you will go away, you will abandon me, you ungrateful woman!”
So this narrator is a bit of a drama king, then?
Oh yes… but (the words of the songs) are like a strange prophecy in terms of Beethoven’s misfortunes in love. It’s amazing that even at such a young age he was attracted to those types of texts.
In youth, every emotion is writ large, whether joy or sadness.
Speaking of the latter, you were going to do Morgana… ?
I’ve worked on it, yes – I learned it, though I sang it before, four years ago. So I approached it like new now – I wrote new ornaments – but we stopped rehearsal in Dresden. We rehearsed two days, with two rehearsals, and tomorrow, I’m going home.
You know, this whole virus… it makes you put things in proportion. I don’t know where the future is going, even now. The fact I’m unemployed for this month and I don’t know next month… if they’ll open the (Wiener Staatsoper) house, who knows? Thinking about the future of our profession… public finding has to go to the hospitals… it just shows the priorities, of where things go, so what’s the situation with us, the freelance artists? I’m sure orchestras in the UK are worried about that as well; a lot of the players are freelance, and it means that if concerts are cancelled, they’re not being paid.
Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
Do you feel there Is there might be any value – as you say, you learned the role, you did the prep – is there some good you still might take away from the experience?
Every time I learn a role or re-learn a role I have new ideas, new insights, and then in the future I share it with my students. But yes, you always learn about the voice, about different styles and different approaches to a role. You never know, maybe I can jump in again (to Alcina). The prep is never for nothing, it’s just… you kind of feel that it’s not complete. You have not completed the process; you complete it only when you go onstage and share it with the public.
But I think maybe this virus is there to teach us a lot of things; maybe it’s not bad to just stop. Everything just stops for a few weeks… everybody is thinking, everybody will reinvent themselves, hopefully. The one thing I’m happy about is that it’s really good for our planet; there are no airplanes flying, the factories in China were closed so the air above China is much cleaner. So maybe it’s a way for our planet to refresh itself and maybe we need to use this time wisely. Spring is a time of rebirth, so maybe we all need to clean our closets and throw out the rubbish that we don’t need and concentrate on the important things – to understand the whole world is one community and we are a small village and we need to stick together, to help each other.
Look, I’m very sad the performances are cancelled – I was very stressed this week. The worst thing for me is the unknown; you make plans, and what gives me confidence is that I know exactly where I am at on any given day for the next two years, and I know who takes care of my kids and… there’s a plan for everything. And suddenly, the whole plan falls apart. I don’t know where I am, the kids are not in school, my mother is stuck in quarantine in Israel. You come back to the basics and you see what is really important: we are healthy, we are together as a family, we have food, we have music – and thank God we can share it. I can share the CD with my friends, with all my fans, with social media. Even with all the bad things about social media in these times, it’s giving us a feeling of being together. And, I really hope this Beethoven album will give hope, comfort, and joy to people now that they cannot hear live music.
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Looking at Cornelius Meister’s calendar inspires a mix of wonder and exhaustion.
The German conductor, who is Music Director of the Staatsoper und Staatsorchester Stuttgart, is currently in New York City, leading performances of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera until February 22nd. From there, he jets off to Tokyo to lead the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (of which he is Principal Guest Conductor) before playing with various orchestras in France, Germany, and Austria. A return to Stuttgart comes the end of April; Meister will conduct a series of concerts and also conduct a revival of Tristan und Isolde, where he’ll be leading soprano Catherine Naglestad in her role debut as the doomed Irish princess. May brings a production of Strauss’s Arabella in Vienna, and the summer features a busy mix of concerts and opera back in Stuttgart. All this activity doesn’t even touch Meister’s extensive discography, many of them done when he was Chief Conductor and Artistic Director with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien (ORF) between 2010 and 2018.
Meister, whose father was a professor at Musikhochschule Hannover and whose mother is a piano teacher, started out in 2003 as Second Kappellmeister with Staatsoper Hannover (his hometown), before becoming Music Director of the Theatre and Philharmonic Orchestra of Heidelberg, where he stayed for seven years, until 2012. His recordings (of Brahms, Haydn, Dvořák, Mozart, Wagner, Bartók, Zemlinsky, and particularly Bruckner) and live work (a comprehensive A to Z listing on his website includes, among the very many, Beethoven, Lehár, Gershwin, Mahler, Boulez, Nono, Stravinsky, Webern, and Zender) reflect an insatiable musical appetite, one that seems to grow with each new orchestra and experience, whether orchestral or operatic. Meister’s tenure at Oper Stuttgart began in 2018, having already conducted at numerous prestigious houses, including Oper Zürich, Teatro Alla Scala Milan, Semperoper Dresden, and Wiener Staatsoper, and festivals including those at Glyndebourne, Salzburg, and in Bucharest, at the biennial Enescu Festival.
All this activity isn’t exactly unusual for a successful artist within the classical sphere, but the breadth and range of Meister’s musical curiosity is as enlightening as it is exhilarating. I became much better acquainted with the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů thanks to a truly brilliant 2017 recording (Capriccio Records) of the Czech composer’s complete symphonies. Recorded with the ORF between 2011 and 2017, the mammoth album (spread across three CDs) is a gorgeous lesson for both newbies and Martinů connoisseurs alike, revealing Meister’s focus on maintaining keen balances between individual voices within the rich orchestral tapestries, while emphasizing their unique tonal and structural paths and underpinnings. At its release, music writer Michael Cookson noted that “Meister palpably generates considerable tension in his readings and the playing, full of rhythmic energy, is never less than steadfast, whilst shaping phrases that give consideration to every nuance.”
His 2014 album of the music of Wagner (Capriccio Records), again with the ORF and featuring soprano Anne Schwanewilms, performing the beloved Wesendonck Lieder and and Elisabeth’s Aria from Tannhäuser, is a sumptuous mix of big and small; Wagner’s sweepingly broad overture to Tannhäuser is here given loving pockets of quietude, with rippling strings that glint softly, shimmering against woodwinds and brass, Meister’s watchful tempi and textural swells throughout the album underline the music’s connection to a broader scope of musical history, both backward-looking (Beethoven) and anticipatory (again, Martinů, which would make sense given the album’s timing). Meister and I recently spoke amidst performances of Nozze at The Met; I asked the busy father of three how he kept up such a hectic pace, before moving into musical, and, as you’ll read, dramatic (and even balletic) matters.
Adam Plachetka as Figaro and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Nozze.” Photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera
You have a lot of diversified engagements – how do you keep your energy and inspiration?
I have a family, and I must say, I love music and opera of course but it is not everything in my life. And without my family, I think I couldn’t do everything.
Many artists say that family provides the balance amidst the chaos.
Yes. I’m very happy to be born not ten or twenty years earlier, because nowadays it is so much easier to call each other from another continent or city, and to take fast trains and such. We didn’t have these things even fifty years ago; now it’s much easier to keep in touch.
The houses that you perform in (Stuttgart, Zürich, Vienna, New York) are all so different; how do you create intimacy within each space?
When I’m conducting, let’s say an opera by Mozart, it matters a lot which room I’m performing it in regarding the acoustics. In Germany there are a lot of ensembles, so between thirty and forty singers who work regularly; that means sometimes we prepare role debuts together, one year ahead or even more. Last season in Stuttgart, we did Ariadne Auf Naxos and we had a wonderful mezzo soprano who is now in our ensemble, and she prepared it more than one year in advance – this is only possible in houses with an ensemble.
On the other hand, here at The Met I have the privilege to work with many singers who have done their roles in various productions at several great opera houses, so this makes it easier in another aspect, I would say – their acoustic awareness could start on the highest level, and the beauty for me, as a conductor, is then to bring all these different experiences together to create a production ensemble.
Photo: Marco Borggreve
You said in a 2019 interview that conducting is about making music together – how does that relate to the inherent power dynamics of being a conductor? How do you balance the power aspect with the collaborative aspect?
On the one hand, of course it is true that a conductor can decide a lot, but on the other hand, I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t play any tune or make the music by himself, so I can’t do anything without having everybody on the same side. I would say my job is to encourage everybody to be brilliant, and confident, and bring together all the different possibilities and traditions and experiences everybody has. And in houses like the Metropolitan Opera, where everybody in the orchestra has played these operas a lot, with many different conductors, it’s not a question of, “How we do it?”, it’s more a question of how we all can do it in the same style, and how we can bring it all together. This is a task I like very much. I also like to be flexible when I conduct the same opera in Vienna and New York – the result is, of course, very different; it’s still my Mozart, for example, but there is not just one Mozart which is my Mozart.
Would you say that flexibility is the key to authority in your position?
In a way, yes, but I would also say that it is really necessary to have some strong ideas of what I want – having something I really like and really want with music, and being flexible to bring everybody to that result.
That must be especially true when you move between so many different orchestras as you are about to do, post-Nozze. Where does flexibility fit within your experiences between different ensembles, especially ones you have such a short amount of time with?
I always try to use the tradition an orchestra has – so the Viennese tradition, or maybe the Dresden Staatskapelle tradition, for example – those traditions are really old, and I adore them, and I always make a point to ask members of the orchestra how are they used to playing this or that. When I’m in Vienna I spend hours and hours in the library to research information which is hand-written into the orchestra parts, hand-written from the time when Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler conducted there. I wouldn’t think that us younger conductors should always start at point zero; we should use that tradition, we can learn from it. In Stuttgart we are using the original harmonium used at the Ariadne world premiere – the first version of the opera was performed in Stuttgart in 1912, just two months after the opening of the opera house, with this very harmonium.
Where does that sense of tradition fit when you are working on a new production? You had an special situation in Zürich in 2018 with a new production of Così fan tutte, and you also led a new work, The Snow Queen, in Munich in 2019.
in Zürich the situation was that we didn’t have the director face-to-face – we were in close contact. So every morning we got a new video message from Kirill Serebrennikov; there was contact and he had brilliant assistants in Zürich, but for me as a conductor, the face-to face exchange is really important when preparing a new opera production. When I’m conducting opera, I’m not only a musician; I try to be a theatre person also, and I need a sense of every aspect of the drama. The first and most important question, always, is not, “how can we play the music?” but “how can we create that emotion, that dramatic situation?’ In order to create that situation you have several possibilities; there are scenic possibilities and musical possibilities, but these are, for me, totally secondary. The first question has to relate to the drama. And if I don’t have a partner to whom I can say something and to which he can react – not only by email or whatever – then it isn’t so easy! In the end (for Così fan tutte) of course I was very happy we did it, and it was very important, I think, to do that in Zürich.
In Munich the situation was completely different because there the piece (directed by Andreas Kriegenburg) had already been performed in Copenhagen some months before, so it was already set, on a certain level. Rachel Wilson, who is from Texas and is in the ensemble in Stuttgart now, sang the main mezzo role (Kay) in The Snow Queen, and she was really well-prepared coming in, so it was quite easy.
When you perform symphonic works by the likes of Martinů and Bruckner, and then go back to the opera house and do Wagner and Mozart, what things do you take with you between the two worlds?
I always appreciate it when orchestras who play symphonic music are also experienced in accompanying singers. In my opinion, a violin group who is used to listening to a singer in the opera is also very flexible and fast in listening to a solo oboe, for example, in a symphony. On the other hand, I appreciate it a lot when orchestras which are playing normally a lot of opera are also used to, in some situations, sitting on the stage and creating something unique for one or two or three performances. From one world I try to take the best and then bring it to the other world, and of course, some composers, like Mahler and Schumann and Brahms, wrote very opera-type things, and it’s good to have those works be performed also, because for me there is not such a big difference between theatrical music and other music.
When we have the Third Symphony of Bruckner, for example, with its quotations of Wagner in its first edition, this is a good example for that close relationship between those worlds, but I know there are many conductors who are conducting either operas or symphonic music. Others do mostly oratorios and choir music. I respect that, because I think (the music) needs different techniques, conducting techniques, and people to conduct different styles, but I always try to learn as much as I can from all these works. I have also conducted oratorios and ballets during my Kapellmeister time years ago, and sometimes I would conduct silent movies too.
Photo: Marco Borggreve
What did you learn conducting ballet?
A ballet dancer needs certain tempos as a singer would need. I, as a musician, hopefully can sense if a singer needs a certain tempo. When is started to conduct ballets, it was much more difficult for me to feel that sense of which was the right tempo for him or her, and sometimes we had different ballet dancers on stage who needed different tempi. After some experiences it was easier for me to see and to feel how movement onstage is related to music tempi, and this helps now, a lot, when I’m conducting operas – not only to listen, but also to watch which is the right tempo for an action or movement onstage.
This relates to what I said earlier, that for me, music is a part of a larger theatrical performance. I had an experience eleven years ago when I conducted The Abduction From The Seraglio at the San Francisco Opera, my first opera experience in the United States (in 2009). I had conducted it before in Germany. I took approximately the same tempo which I had taken before, but with this production in San Francisco, it didn’t work. I had to take a different musical tempo and then it worked within a scenic sense, not only for the action but for the atmosphere onstage. I changed my musical approach, quite happily.
You took lessons with your father – how much do you think this quality of openness relate to that time?
He and I spent so many hours playing piano together, four hands style. We would go through and play all the Beethoven works, and all the Bruckner symphonies. He was never a conductor, but he was really interested in everything, not only piano music, but also he had a great knowledge about history and culture in general. So through this approach I learned to always be open to the world, and to be interested in different sounds, and in people from different nations and people with different ideas of the world. This was my education, and I am really glad for that.
That curiosity is apparent from the wide repertoire list at your website, which includes the work of Claude Vivier.
For me there has never been a difference between old and contemporary music, because this is the music I’m interested in, and there’s music I may be, at the moment, not so much interested in, but it doesn’t matter which year it’s from. When I was with the ORF it was totally normal to play all different types of music. When we started to rehearse a piece which none of us had performed before, we didn’t ask if this is a good piece or not, because we always started, and after some days, then maybe we started to think something, not as a absolute judgement, but maybe we allowed ourselves to say, “Okay, I like this or that” but never on the first day. We would never be so self-confident to judge music on the first look of it.
Do you think that approach could apply to audiences hearing things for the first time?
I’m not in the position, or I would not like to be in the position, to give advice to audiences, because I respect there are many, many different reasons why a person likes to go to a concert or opera. I respect that the reason could be just to have a wonderful evening, enjoy a glass of champagne at intermission and to relax, not to think too much. This is a good reason. There’s another good reason for people who maybe prepare their opera visits a week before, and they read many books about it, and then they really want to have a strong production, strong Regie, so that they can think about it for the next week, and maybe they wouldn’t understand everything and they like not to understand everything but want to come back three times to get it. Once again, I wouldn’t think I should give advice on how an audience should deal with a performance visit, but I respect that there are different reasons, good reasons.
So just come with an open mind….?
Being open-minded, always, is not a bad idea! What I really ask everybody is not to open the mouth before having thought something out – this is the general advice, for music and for life.