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Brindley Sherratt: “Use The Whole Voice”

Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro in the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival production of Die Zauberflöte. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

Like many in Europe right now, Brindley Sherratt is trying to stay cool. I chatted with the English bass in the middle of a brutal (and record-breaking) heatwave, where he spoke to me from his residence in Sussex, a two-hour drive south of London. “It’s not so bad…  but it’s still 35C!” he said. “I have a huge fan on my desk here.”

Sherratt came to singing relatively late – his mid-late 30s – and, as he told The Times last year, missed out on the young artist training programs and thus “I consider myself about 50 years behind my colleagues in some respects.” This later start might work against some singers, but with Sherratt, it’s quite the opposite; the circumstances offer a gravitas that’s hard to miss onstage. His is an even-keeled, confident presence; he doesn’t make a big show of things vocally or physically, because he doesn’t have to. I experienced his darkly brooding Hunding earlier this year as part of a partial in-concert presentation of Die Walküre with the Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (the opera’s first half was performed) during which he sung alongside Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund and Lise Davidsen’s Sieglinde, in a rich display of vocal dramatism shot through with relentless drive. At the time, I wrote about Sherratt’s performance as being “less outwardly murderous than inwardly brewing, an avuncular if charismatic figure of quiet intensity” and I think that’s a good way to describe him artistically; Sherratt is possessed of a quiet intensity, in both manner and – especially – in voice. (It’s a quality that also makes him a great villain.) His is one of those warm, enveloping sounds that does so much more than merely honk or bellow, but offers sonorous drama and clear delivery. Quite the combination.

Photo: Sussie Ahlburg

Despite the late start, Sherratt has enjoyed a busy career with appearances on both sides of the Atlantic (Metropolitan Opera, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lyric Opera Chicago; Teatro Real de Madrid, Opernhaus Zürich, Wiener Staatsoper), with a concentration of work in the U.K. (Garsington Opera, BBC Proms, Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera North), performing a diverse array of repertoire, including the villainous Claggart in Billy Budd, Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande, Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, Gremin in Eugene Onegin, Geronte di Ravoir in Manon Lescaut, Trulove in The Rake’s Progress, Pogner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Fafner in Siegfried, a role he’s set to reprise in concert with the London Philharmonic in 2020.

Currently Sherratt is performing as Sarastro, in a Barbe & Doucet production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at the Glyndebourne Festival, a venue in which he’s performed frequently over the years; he appeared in both Der Rosenkavalier (as Baron Ochs) and Pelléas et Mélisande (as Arkel) there last summer. In the autumn, he’s scheduled to sing the role of the ghostly Commendatore in Don Giovanni at Royal Opera House Covent Garden. In our recent wide-ranging chat, he shared fascinating insights on the distinct joys of Mozart, Mussorgsky, and Strauss, the differences performing in big and small houses, and the ways he’s kept his in voice in tip-top shape. Sherratt is also, it must be noted, one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with, which makes his brewing onstage presence all the more fascinating.

How are things in Glyndebourne?

It’s fifteen minutes away from my house, so it’s a local gig for me. We’ve only lived down here five years, even before then it was always my favorite place to work, because it feels like family. The setting is amazing, and I’ve been in good productions. The house is the perfect size; it’s not too big. You don’t feel you need to shout your head off the whole time. The acoustic is great. And, I know everybody. It feels like home. 

You recently marked your 100th performance as Sarastro. A lot of singers I talk to say Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

It is. Precisely. If I can sing Sarastro well, with legato and simply – not signing loud – if I can do this, then I know I’m in good shape. Because at my age and everything, you can just end up doing loud all the time.

It’s what a lot of basses do. 

Yes but Mozart is really a balm for my voice, and good discipline too. People might think, “Oh, it’s just another Sarastro” – no. If you want to do it well, with really good line, and make it beautiful, then you have to offer something else. It can take me a couple weeks just to pare things down a bit – you don’t have to bellow; it’s just brushing through voice. We’ve done a few shows now.  I haven’t really sang anything lately; after Billy Budd (as John Claggart) I took a month off for holidays, and then I did (Die Zauberflöte),. Now my voice feels in the best shape it’s felt for ages, fresh and bubbly. I keep thinking, “Oh, this is nice!”

The 2019 Glyndebourne production of Die Zauberflöte. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

I spoke with Barbe and Doucet about the production, and they agreed there’s a fun element to the opera, but they were keen to bring this interesting feminist history into it, which is interesting. Have you worked with them before?

No never, but you know it’s really interesting how they superimpose this story about the Sacher Hotel and Escoffier and such. It’s clever what they’ve done. 

You had done this role earlier this year, in English, with the English National Opera.

You know my career started late – I started when I was about 36, 37, so I had to squeeze an awful lot in the last ten or fifteen years, and I did my first Sarastro at the ENO in 2004, and I learned that translation, but what was distressing and surprising was the fact it was a whole new translation this time, and I couldn’t get this new one in my head. I kept coming out with great chunks of the old one, which was funny and a bit alarming for everybody in the cast. I’d done that production, by (Simon) McBurney, twice before. I remember him saying in rehearsals, “Remember, Mozart was a genius, but Schikaneder wasn’t!” Sarastro is so difficult to play – there’s no journey. Whatever production (of Die Zauberflöte) I’m in, I bring my own human approach to the role. 

Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting his final concert in Japan, 2017. (via)

You’re also set to perform as Pimen (in Boris Godunov) at Bayerisches Staatsoper next year

I’ve sung (the role) three times now. It’s amazing music, I love it; Mussorgsky gives you lots of time and space as a singer. The first time I did it years ago was in English, in a new production with Ed Gardner at the ENO. In a way it was good for me; I got to know the measure of the part, and in my own language. The next time I did it in Russian, and it was with an entire cast of Russians, with Rozhdestvensky conducting, and that was terrifying. Oh my God! It was sheer luck I did my first one in Russian with him – honestly, just terrifying! At the end of the first week, he said, “Can I say to you, Pimen has 888 words and 868 of yours are really great.” And he also said, “I love you as an artist.” That was the first positive thing anybody had said to me all week, and I thought, “Well! I’m okay then!”

I was scheduled to sing (Pimen) in Munich back in 2014; after about day four of rehearsal, my throat started to feel strange, and I thought, “What’s this?!” Then my voice went… boom. The day before the sitzprobe I really could barely speak and I thought, “Oh, not now!” – and that was to be my debut in Munich. And the next day I couldn’t sing a note – not a note. I went to see the voice guy and he said, “I think you’re coming down with something. You won’t be singing it first night, everything is congested.” So I went home, because the next show was five days or so later. I never went back. I had such terrible bronchitis, and I couldn’t sing a note. So that was an abortive debut. They asked me to do it again in 2017 and I was busy, so this is the third time lucky – I get to do Pimen in Munich, finally! 

Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro in the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival production of Die Zauberflote. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

I was speaking with a singer recently who noted the differences between big and small houses, and the aspects of singing in each of them. There is this assumption that because you’re a bass you can just sing loud.

I sort of feel Glyndebourne is wonderful that way – because, for instance, I did Billy Budd about five or six years ago in there, and I don’t like doing loud roles in a house that size. If I’m going to do big music, I like a big house; you can just chuck your voice out there. There is always a feeling in a smaller house that it’s a bit much. But with the big house, for me it’s about clarity, not the amount of muscle you put on it. I’ve been in rehearsal with voices and thought, “Wow, the room is shaking here,” but onstage it’s a different ball game because it’s just the clarity that makes you carry over in the big house. I’m slowly learning.

When I started to do bigger roles in the opera house the feedback was,  “Oh, your voice isn’t big enough for the house,” so I tried singing everything really, really loud, and my voice got too heavy, too thick, and I lost the top, so I went back to the drawing board and thought, “No, I don’t want to go this route, I’ll have a short career,” so I reworked, things, kept the vocalise going, and tried to keep as much sound in the head as I can. If I listen to people I admire, like Furlanetto. At 69 his voice has so much ring on it. He sings huge, but it’s beautiful, and that’s my goal: I want to make it clear, and so that it means something rather than just standing there like, “Listen to me!”

You’ll be going back to The Met – a very big house indeed – a few times next season, doing Bartolo in Le nozze di Figaro.

They said, “Come do Bartolo” and I thought, it’s nine performances in a month – yes, I’ll do that, and I do like being in NYC. When you go onstage and see the space, you think, “Oh I’ve really got to honk!” Now I realize it’s more about the ping on your voice than anything else. You’ve got to keep it clear, then you’re fine.

Brindley Sherratt in rehearsal for the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival production of Die Zauberflöte. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.

Like we said, Mozart is a good massage for the voice. But you mentioned something a while ago about the importance of coaching… 

I was chatting to Gerry Finley at the time, saying, “I’m not singing right, I’m not happy with this” and he said, “Go see Gary (Coward) for a few sessions.” Gary was a singer in the chorus in the ENO for years. I sang a few things for him and he said, “There’s nothing wrong at all, you just got a bit thick and heavy,” so he prescribed some vocalise – singing just over the middle of the voice, never singing loud, and I just worked that into my routine, and I got it back, and I sang the St. Matthew Passion arias, and a lot of Handel. I still do, just to keep the flexibility going and the voice moving. I’ve noticed it, certainly with basses: there’s this assumption you don’t need to warm up that much. But I do quite a bit – I can’t abide going out there and just “AHHH!” I want to still be able to sing the Matthew Passion arias. That’s what I did to get my voice back on track. Just to keep the head voice going, and the flexibility.

Yours is a very flexible voice; it’s one of the things I noticed first in hearing you.

My voice just gets into this “uhhhhh” rut if i don’t do it. I did Ochs (from Der Rosenkavalier) at Glyndebourne, and that was a role where people said, “You’re not an Ochs! You’re the wrong voice; you’re the wrong shape” – but you know that (role) really helped my voice hugely, because it’s all moving around, it goes up to F-sharp and down to C. That was a period when I was singing the best I’ve ever sung; everything had to be there every night and it was, vocally. It was almost like Mozart, really. I said to my agent, “I want to do this a lot, while I still can.” It’s nice to have that fun on stage. John Tomlinson said to me, “Do as many Ochs as you can – do the happy roles, the fun roles; that way you can sing them all again when you get old, because you won’t be stuck with low stuff, stuck in one position. ” Use the whole voice, up and down; that’s really important to me.

What about lied?

Tomorrow I’ve got an afternoon with Julius Drake. He came, bizarrely, to Billy Budd and the Ring I did, and Alice Coote – she’s an old friend – had said to him, “Hey, work with Brindley” so he said to me recently, “Come to my house and we’ll spend an afternoon going through stuff.” I said, “I was a choral singer for fifteen years, then went straight into opera, so lied is not that much of my knowledge and experience.” He said, “For two hours we’ll try a load of stuff.” I did do “Songs And Dances Of Death” with orchestra a few years ago, and I did Strauss songs with orchestra. If I can find the right color and the right song, then I would love to do more of it. To sing in a more intimate setting I need somebody skilled at it, who knows me, then we can work out what’s best for my color. It’s like going back to school, like, “Let’s start with a blank page.” And I have a dream: I want to do Winterreise. I’m not known as a recital singer, but I’d like to get that going. 

Vasily Petrenko: “You Have To Be Very Brave”

vasily petrenko conductor

Photo: Svetlana Tarlova

“Life is full — I’m not complaining!”

Vasily Petrenko was between sessions when we spoke recently, juggling recording all the Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Boris Giltburg (for future release on Naxos Records), with new season announcements, an upcoming London performance, and recent news of his Met Opera debut this autumn.

The chatty Saint Petersburg native is indeed busy. He has many titles: Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Chief Conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra; Principal Guest Conductor of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia. In 2020 he steps down as music director of the Oslo orchestra (a position to which he was appointed in 2013-14); a year later, he leaves his position with Liverpool as well, though his long-standing relationship with the RLPO (he will have been with then fifteen years by then) will continue with Petrenko becoming Conductor Laureate. All of this movement is very much done with purpose: at the start of the 2021-2022 season, Petrenko becomes Music Director of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He’s set to lead his first concert with them since the announcement was made of his appointment last July; a highly-anticipated program featuring the music of Brahms and Strauss unfolds next month at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

With numerous accolades, awards, and a sizeable array of acclaimed recordings and appearances, Petrenko is, and has been, a man on the move since his early days in Russia, studying at the St Petersburg Conservatoire and participating in masterclasses with conductors Mariss Jansons and Yuri Temirkanov. The winner of numerous international conducting competitions (including First Prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition in 1997), Petrenko received the prestigious Young Artist of the Year Award from Gramophone in 2007; a full decade later he was awarded their Artist of the Year (voted on by the public). He won the Male Artist of the Year at the Classical Brit Awards in 2010, and has appeared with a range of prestigious orchestras (including the Gewandhaus Leipzig, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, NHK Symphony Tokyo, to name just a few), and festivals, including the BBC Proms, Edinburgh, Aspen, and Ravinia. Tomorrow and Sunday evenings (May 16 / 19), he leads his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) in a series of concerts with cellist Alban Gerhardt featuring Russian repertoire (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Kabalevsky), before jetting off to Norway for concerts with soprano Veronique Gens and the Oslo Philharmonic featuring the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, and Respighi.

vasily petrenko conductor

Photo: Svetlana Tarlova

Lest you think Petrenko’s output is limited to symphonic work, think again. He has over thirty operas in his repertoire; in 2010, he appeared at both Glyndebourne (Verdi’s Macbeth) and Opéra National de Paris (Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), but more recently conducted staged productions of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Bayerische Staatsoper (2016) and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Opernhaus Zürich (2016-17). Concert performances have also been plentiful — of Verdi’s Falstaff with the RLPO (in conjunction with the European Opera Centre) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel (with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; both 2017). In November, Petrenko will make his Metropolitan opera debut conducting Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, with a stellar cast which includes soprano (and 2015 Operalia winner) Lise Davidsen, with whom Petrenko has previously worked.

The maestro’s warmth and dynamism are palpable whether onstage, in recordings, or indeed, in conversation. His reading of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018 glowed with bold strings and ripe, round phrasing that warmly captured the work’s dancelike underpinnings; likewise his appearance last October at Cadogan Hall with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (“Evgeny Svetlanov”), where he led energetic if densely-woven performances of works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the latter’s Symphony No. 2 being, as Bachtrack’s Mark Pullinger rightly notes, “as brooding, as melancholic, as passionate an account as you’d wish to hear.” Elgar’s Chanson de matin was the encore that evening, which was perfectly fitting, considering Petrenko’s recordings of the English composer with the RLPO (in 2015, 2017, and 2019; Onyx) are genuinely excellent. Petrenko’s reading of Elgar works gave me a whole new insight into a sound world I had always felt closed off from; there was something about the composer’s output that always seemed cold, distant, impenetrable. How wrong I was, and how deeply grateful I am for Petrenko’s readings; they brim a lively, warm energy, a keen forward momentum, effervescent textures and poetic nuance, underlining the joy, drama and humanity so central to Elgar’s canon.

vasily petrenko elgar onyx rlpo

Photo: Onyx

Released in March of this year, Petrenko and the RLPO’s recording of the Serenade For String Orchestra, Op. 20 (together with the famous Enigma Variations) boasts gorgeous modulations, with an intriguing emphasis on the lyricism of the sparky cello and bass lines in the first movement (Allegro piacevole); the interplays and contrasts with a silken violin section that swells with operatic grandeur in the piece’s Larghetto, delicately swirling and swooping around a songlike cello section. It’s all so conversational and engaging, so dynamic and thoughtful, so casual and  smart, all at once… rather like the conductor himself.

Between recording Beethoven Concertos, Petrenko recently offered a waterfall of insights on everything from the new seasons in both Oslo and Liverpool and the importance of new works within orchestral programming, to growing up in Saint Petersburg and thoughts on his Met debut later this year.

The 2019-2020 seasons for both the Oslo Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic certainly offer a lot to chew on.

We do have a lot — in Oslo it’s the orchestra’s centenary year, so we have a lot of projects related to the anniversary, including outdoor concerts for 20,000 people and tours to mainland Europe and other places. We also have concerts which reflect the past, so there will be one exactly mirroring the orchestra’s first concert – we’ll perform what was performed in 1919. And there’s plenty there with Liverpool too, like with the Mahler cycle starting from January 2020. So that’s a lot of symphonies!

Oslo Philharmonic CEO Ingrid Røynesdal said the the centenary season had been built around the theme of “Yesterday / Today / Tomorrow” and will feature fifteen new commissions; what role do you see new works playing within future programming?

I think for audiences it’s a matter of trust for conductor and orchestra, that even if the public does not know the name of the composer on the poster, they are still coming because they trust it’ll be great music. Here in Liverpool when I started to perform Hindemith for the very first time, people didn’t know the composer and didn’t turn out. Some asked, “Who or what is a Hindemith — is it a skin disease?” Later I was insisting he be performed — I really admire his works, and think he deserves much wider recognition. It isn’t contemporary music but it’s music of the 20th century. And later the audiences started to pack the house, even for contemporary works, including his pieces. We did a few different things — chamber works, choral works. It’s a matter of trust. I tried to put other names back on the map, and did so, quite successfully.

vasily petrenko conductor

Photo: Mark McNulty

It is, for a conductor and an orchestra, a duty; it’s a must. I feel really obliged to perform as much contemporary music as I can, especially contemporary music of the local place where the orchestra is based, so in Liverpool English composers, and in Oslo, regional composers of Scandinavia; if we won’t give them a chance, who will? If the piece is not performed, nobody knows if it’s good or bad, it stays virtual — but time and the public will tell which will be a masterpiece, which will be neglected or forgotten. I think the vox populi will decide over the years which pieces of music become masterpieces, but to give them a chance to decide, we have to perform them, so I’m always up to do new commissions and also to perform a piece a second or third time. Contemporary music is so often performed once and under-rehearsed at that — and then of course it’s not given a second chance, a second look; it can just go to the trash bin, which is not what it deserves. So for me I’m trying to find a way where you’re not performing a new piece for 200 people who think they’re gurus of contemporary music, but for a full house. To program that you have to be very careful; it’s just one item of programming which will also include a famous work, so the main and general public will come and then they can discover something new and be moved.

This is not even in the very contemporary vein, but this past January I did Sibelius Four, which is one of the less performed symphonies by him. It’s very dark and very profound and much more difficult to absorb rather than the First, the Second, or the Fifth; it was the main piece, and we were expecting that it would not be full, but a lot of people came, and they said it was the best concert of the season! So you have to be very brave, and believe in contemporary music, and in yourself, and do it as much as you can.

That echoes something Johannes Moser said to me recently, that very often the public’s exposure to contemporary works is linked to a mediocre performance, so they assume that’s how all of it sounds.

If you look into the history of many pieces which are now considered as masterpieces, their first (presentations) were not big successes. It’s only after the second or third run, when the orchestra is more familiar with a new piece, and it feels more musical and less technical for them, that they can they recognize it as good. I should confess to the marketing department that I’d like to perform a contemporary piece twice in same concert: once at the beginning; then whatever music in the middle; then again at the very end. That may give quite a different perspective for the public. It’s challenging because of the general strategy but maybe that’s how you can program (contemporary music) better than how it is done now.

cadogan hall

Cadogan Hall. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That brings to mind something you’d said to The Scotsman last year in relation to your new role with the Royal Philharmonic about using various London venues for various types of repertoire; that seems important within the broader context of shaping public perceptions of certain works.

With the Royal Philharmonic, we will be quite lucky, performing quite extensively at Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, and Cadogan Hall. London does not have an ideal, let’s say, concert hall, but those three venues, they can cover different pieces. Royal Albert Hall, of course, is perfect for big symphonies — Strauss and the Don Juans, big Bruckner works, Elgar, Mahler, oratorios, and various potentially semi-staged operas — it’s a coliseum, it’s made for that. Then Royal Festival Hall is probably for the main romantic and post-romantic things, like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten, that kind of thing can be done there. And then Cadogan Hall is for pieces written earlier, like the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, ideally, or after, like neo-classical, contemporary music, with relatively small orchestras — that can work there very well also. So I think the variety of different pieces of music is related to the size and abilities of each hall.

And performing at a variety of venues is good for community-building, something you’ve been incredibly committed to throughout your time in both Oslo and Liverpool. For the RLPO, you told The Guardian in 2015 that you wanted to see the kids in the youth program become full-fledged members of the RLPO.  

Yes in five or ten years — ideally, yes. I think for any orchestra to go into the society of the place they’re based and to be part of that community is very, very important. It’s a thing I’ve done here in Liverpool and I’ve done it in Oslo too — the orchestra and I are coming much more frequently into universities and such, sometimes I’ve done things like lectures, which they appreciate, and also I do all the pre-concert talks there before every single concert, either offstage or onstage, which brings people an understanding.  It’s something which we always need to remember with any orchestra: we are there for the public; the public is not there for us.

vasily petrenko

Photo: Mark McNulty

Where did that come from, that urge to connect with community? Was it your background in Russia, and the way culture seems to be so woven into everyday life there?

I guess part of it came from Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad, which, in the 1980s and 1990s, growing up there was this sense of living in a very big village. It’s a huge city, five million inhabitants, it’s a city where every citizen used to know at least, how to get to a certain street, they knew the city extremely well and were ready to help each other, and literally were ready to talk to each other on the streets or wherever else, and that was also reflected in Philharmonic programs and at the Mariinsky and Kirov Ballet programs. Culture is a big part of Russian and Soviet society, and I’m quite glad that nowadays it’s sort of returned back, slowly, to the level of how it was in Soviet times.

vasily petrenko svetlanov cadogan douglas

With the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia and pianist Barry Douglas at Cadogan Hall in October 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

You know, you can say a lot of bad things about the Communists, but the attention they directed toward culture was huge — in a good and in a bad way — but the profession of musician in the Soviet Union was one of the most prestigious professions of all, for many reasons — huge competitions, relatively good salaries by Soviet standards; it was highly prestigious. People were respecting a lot of the artists, the singers and the musicians; all the people of art. That had been neglected (after the fall of Communism) partly because it was much more business-oriented, but now it seems to me this way is being brought back slowly, so the Moscow Philharmonic, as an umbrella of organizations, they sell an incredible amount of tickets, something like 500,000 subscriptions or something. Those in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are very active in culture; it is a part of the common life to go to the theatre or the Philharmonic Hall and to other concert halls, to the opera — literally almost every citizen tries to go at least every other week, and it is a very knowledgeable public, a public who understands the values and the essence (of art), and I’m really glad that it’s continued.

So yes, probably, (the awareness of community) came from that point, the understanding that culture itself can improve the quality of life of everyone, of every individual — there’s a message that we are there to improve your quality of life, mentally, emotionally, physically, all sorts of things.

I’m not sure opera is perceived that way in some places, though. You’re in NYC in the fall, making your Met Opera debut with Pique Dame (The Queen Of Spades) — what ideas or approaches do you bring with you from Oslo, Liverpool, Petersburg…? 

People quite often ask me, “What’s the difference between conducting an opera and conducting a conducting symphonic orchestra?” and I say: when you conduct an orchestra, you’re driving a car; when you conduct an opera, you’re driving a truck. You have to think about the size and your responsibility when you’re conducting opera, and how it’s different. Your ability is obviously different when you have just a small car; the maneuverability is bigger, of course you can turn and twist immediately. With a big truck, you have to think about where it will move, and you also have to think about others; however, with a big truck you can bring more goods. And so of course the difference is that you are in charge, probably, if not indirectly in opera, of many other people — not just singers, not just dancers, but for instance light engineers, curtain makers, you have to acknowledge and know many more things than just the music. It’s also about physics — where the choir is, how they’re moving — everything can affect the performance. On the other hand, with the music plus the visual aspects, you can have a huge emotional impact on the public, all of the visual details are much more direct than just the sounds, to your mind and to the minds of the listeners, or the viewers.

met opera chandeliers

Inside the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

The Met is a very big house too.

It is a big house, and I’ve heard from many people — and this is what I’m saying to singers and to orchestras in other places which are big —that even if the house is big, quite naturally you start to play or sing louder, which is not necessary, because it leads to too-loud performances. So for me I want to find the balance and delicacy of the score, and in Pique Dame there are many delicate, quiet moments; probably the main climaxes happen in the quiet moments rather than the loud moments  — the psychological climaxes — and so, we’ll work on those moments. If there is coherence between what’s going on visually onstage and what it says in the music, that can make an incredible effect.

Too Much Is Not Enough

(Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
Is too much of a good thing really so bad?
In Salzburg last August, I was spoiled in seeing operas and concerts every day and night of my visit; I generally avoid this, as it not only hurts the brain, but robs the soul of some meaningful (and usually much-needed, in my case) contemplation, as well as necessary human connection and company. I like to sit between things and drink, write, and live: go to dinner, go to galleries, take long walks — but mostly, think, feel, absorb. Good music, well sung and presented, offers me big meal needing a slow digestion, which is best done in silence and sunshine, over wine or cocktails, with friends in lively talks, on walks through the woods with birdsong and breezes.

Alas, I didn’t get much time for any of that on a recent trip to New York City, where I saw four operas over a three-day visit, with various work-related things to complete two of the three day times. New York in winter is challenging enough; being exposed to so music, and so many ideas, presented a wholly unique level of emotional and intellectual heartburn. Then again, it was its own kind of binge, and I can’t say I’m sorry for indulging. All the operas I saw (Fidelio, Idomeneo, Romeo et Juliette, and La Traviata) left strong impressions in different ways, but what linked them all was the tremendously high quality of singing, and, in some cases, the intriguing smart approach to directing.
The Met’s revival of Fidelio, for instance (which closes tomorrow, Saturday, April 8th), was so good that I still recall (and am stopped in my tracks by) various images it presented. Beethoven’s sole opera revolves around a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband Florestan, who is being held prisoner by a ruthless state governor, Don Pizarro.  Many people not familiar with opera will be familiar with the famous “Leonore” overture, the third in a series of pieces Beethoven wrote in his frenzy to perfect the work. I have clear memories of seeing this opera at the Canadian Opera Company decades ago with my mother, and her writing an angry letter to the company after the production did not include this overture; to her, it was sacrilege, but of course, it was difficult to convey, in a diplomatic matter, that the habit of playing it as part of an opera production (usually just before the finale) had fallen out of fashion, for logistical as well as dramatic reasons. I still think of her, and in fact, did again this trip. Jurgen Flimm’s production, however, is so smart, and the performances so very engaging (particularly sopranos Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Adrienne Pieczonka, who I am very much looking forward to seeing in the Canadian Opera Company’s Tosca), that I honestly didn’t miss that bit of nostalgia at all. Sorry, mom. 

Fidelio bows (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
Flimm, who is Director of the Staatsoper Berlin Unter den Linden since 2010 (and whose work you’ll be reading more about in a post later this spring) has placed the action of the work —traditionally set in late 18th-century Seville after the French Revolution — in immediately-post-WW2 Europe. In doing this, he uses imagery that some (especially those of us familiar with Holocaust photo documents) may find familiar; piles of shoes, for instance, along with other personal belongings, are piled into corners in the underground dungeon where Florestan is being held, the only signs of the vanished, the ranks of which Don Pizarro firmly plans his prisoner to join. Director Flimm gives a poignant commentary on the nature of power here, and how its abuse creates political discord which is expressed as a deep social malaise. Thus, relationships are given a distinct emphasis: those between employer and employee, prisoner and guard, father and daughter, husband and wife — and, more broadly, men and women. Everything is poisoned, and thus, everyone. 

Nowhere was this illustrated more clearly than in the way Flimm staged the interactions between Leonore (Adrienne Pieczonka), the prison warden Rocco (Falk Struckmann), Marzellina (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller) and Jaquino (David Portillo), an assistant to Rocco at the prison where Leonore’s husband Florestan (Klaus Florian Vogt) is being held illegally by Don Pizarro (Greer Grimsley). The stark contrast between the Marzellina/Jaquino and Leonore/Florestan relationships was highlighted at the ending of the opera, which, for all its raucous joy, had a satisfyingly bitter edge, with Flimm showing the corrupt Pizarro being led to the gallows by celebrating freed prisoners, and Marzellina’s look of horror as she realizes the “boy” she’d been infatuated with was really a woman; Jaquino is intent on harassing (or rather, bullying, in the manner of his old boss) the poor girl into submission, as she drops blood-red roses across the celebratory scene. Leonore and Florestan are hoisted in joy by the happy onlookers as Robert Israel’s stark set, with its unmistakeable gallows, looms over the proceedings, a grim reminder that the happiness on display is not only fleeting, but mixed with violence, the sort that its purer form (in the form of Leonore) sought to eradicate. It is a caustic ending that offers a fantastically smart and very timely non-conclusion to what many consider to be one of the most difficult works in the operatic repertoire.

Matthew Polenzani as Idomeneo / Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera (via)
Less about production and far, far more about the singing in and of itself providing the drama, Mozart’s 1781 opera Idomeneo, featured a stellar cast that included soprano Elza van den Heever (whose work I so enjoyed last fall, when she performed the lead in Norma with the Canadian Opera Company) and tenor Matthew Polenzani, who is the recipient of a 2017 Opera News Award (which are being handed out in NYC this coming Sunday, April 9th). More than once during that Friday evening performance I found myself shutting eyes and throwing head back in sheer wonder at Polenzani’s marvelously emotive voice, his “Fuor del mar” in the second act a particularly heartfelt interpretation. (Sidenote: I am greatly looking forward to the revival of his Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore next season; expect a post about that.) Lindemann Young Artist Development Program graduate Yin Fang, who sang the role of Ilia, has a gorgeous, crystalline soprano, as well as a gracious stage presence that made her scenes with mezzo soprano Alice Coote (in a pants role, as Idamante, son of the title character) a joy to listen to. The 35 year-old production, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was tasteful if homogenous — which was useful, because it allowed a pure experience of Mozart’s music, in and of itself. Maestro James Levine conducted a lustrous Met Orchestra that allowed for the score’s youthful vivacity to shine through, something the singers took full and glorious advantage of. 

In the parterre.
 (Photo: mine, link /  Please do not reproduce without 
permission)
Equally compelling was American theatre director Bartlett Sher‘s Romeo et Juliette, French composer Charles Gounod’s tuneful 1867 interpretation of the Shakespearean tale of the star-crossed lovers. The house was, I think, nearly sold out for this special closing show, which featured star turns from soprano Pretty Yende and tenor Stephen Costello in the leads. Yende is a highly watchable performer, her lilting voice as responsive and graceful as the fluters of her gorgeous Catherine Zuber-designed costumes; she shared an exceptional chemistry with Costello, whose wholly romantic rendering of “Ah! Lêve-toi, soleil!” made more than a few of the ladies around me happily sigh. Making his mark in a small but pivotal role as Frère Laurent as English bass Matthew Rose (who I interviewed recently); his authoritative bass voice expressed a wonderfully nuanced range of emotions, and that, together with the way he cleverly used his physicality (Rose is very tall), suggested a touching paternal protectiveness of the young lovers. 
Last but not least on my NYC opera whirlwind trip was Verdi’s La Traviata, perhaps one of the best-known of all works, though this staging was easily one of the most modern I’ve attended. The story, about a popular, if secretly ill, courtesan who finds real love and ultimately gives it up when pressured, only to tragically die (come on, you knew that was coming), is one of the most popular works in opera, with a very famous drinking song that everyone (yes, even you) knows and has hummed to once or twice. Directed by German theater artist Willy Decker from a 2005 production at the Salzburg Festival, the set principally consisted of a massive curved wall, with an overall design aesthetic containing strong German expressionist influences. Violetta’s place as an isolated woman who craves (and survives on) male attention was confirmed and re-confirmed throughout the evening, as was director Decker’s belief that Traviata is (as he notes in the program notes) “a piece about death”; by the end I felt as if I’d been continually hit with a large frying pan labelled Big Artistic Ideas. If it all seemed dramatic and theatrical, I suppose it was meant to, wiping away any lingering memories of traditional productions involving big dresses and fans, and I was actually quite pleased the performers put their whole passion into this endeavour, offering vocal interpretations that precisely matched the strong directorial vision. Its leads —soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta, tenor Michael Fabiano as Alfredo, and baritone Thomas Hampson as Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s father) — delivered searing performances that were entirely modern and watchable, even, dare I say, cinematic, with Fabiano, especially, easily delivering, one of the most memorable (and applauded) interpretations of Alfredo I’ve ever seen; he wasn’t merely passionate about Violetta, but dangerously obsessive. The fact I found myself so impressed is, in retrospect, notable; this was one of my mother’s very favorite works, and I suspect I have seen it now many hundreds of times. I also suspect she would have, in her infinite Verdi wisdom, been as gaga over the performances as I was. 

The set of La Traviata (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
La Traviata continues at the Met to April 14th, with Carmen Giannattasio as Violetta,  Atalla Ayan as Alfredo, and, starting tomorrow night (Saturday, April 8th), Placido Domingo as Giorgio Germont. Go! Andiamo! You may not agree with all of Decker’s creative choices, but I guarantee you will come out with at least one strong image from this production seared into your brain (never a bad thing, ultimately), and with the brindisi — as vibrant a piece of music as ever — still ringing in your ears.  

Opera: Relevant.

Leontyne Price. Photo via
I am an arts journalist and a longtime opera fan. I make it a personal mission to both examine the elements of opera production and clarify it for those who are not familiar with its finer points. Basically, you don’t have to know what coloratura or cabaletta is to have a great experience — and you shouldn’t have to. The widespread popularity of what I’d term “popera” is something I have mixed feelings about; on one hand, it introduces an artform to a wide audience in a fun, audience-friendly way that they recognize and appreciate, but, on the other, it waters down the art form in a way I don’t think is always necessarily helpful.


As I wrote on Twitter, I don’t consider what The Tenors do real opera. I realize this is snobbish and perhaps even offensive to some. I make no apologies. It’s singing loudly and with all the flash that might be perceived as opera, but. Generally, that’s okay; if it makes people more curious about the art form, and leads them to the opera house, or to iTunes to check out the work of various composers, great. Sometimes that curiosity bleeds into something else; sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s okay. If popera inspires the desire to learn more, provides some enjoyment, makes for a pleasant way for some to pass the time: great. I want to be a kind of human Pandora that says, “well, if you liked that, you’re going to love this…”


Russell Thomas and Anita Rachvelishvili in the Canadian Opera Company’s Carmen. Photo via
That very thing happened this past spring, when I brought friends to the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen. With no more exposure to opera than a handful of clips of child stars and reality TV bits and bobs, the friends — of all ages —  sat rapt for over two hours (with intermission). They loved the pageantry of the sets, the splendor of the staging, the lively conducting, and were bowled over, in particular, by the power of the voices. They were awestruck that no one was miced. They wanted to know more, and hear more.


So yes, sometimes popera leads to other things, and it’s nice when that happens. Introducing newcomers to opera busts up fusty old perceptions while kicking open the door to a powerful new artistic experience. If that powerful experience doesn’t happen, that’s fine too, but problems arise when a group like The Tenors make ignorant political statements. The perception of opera being an elitist, privileged, out-of-touch artform made by and for primarily white audiences is reinforced in the ugliest way imaginable. Forget Tamar Iveri and her horrific homophobic slurs; The Tenors have a much broader appeal, and, as a result, a huge audience. Their presence at the All-Star game was a symbol of their mainstream appeal; their horrifying political statement (which I am not going to write here, because it, and the mindset behind it, are offensive) sent out a message that reinforces an ugly, unfair stereotype.


Eric Owens in the Metropolitan Opera’s Elektra. Photo via
Opera companies are working hard at wider representation — at both administrative and creative levels — and some are succeeding more than others. A mariachi opera was met with much success not long ago; a staging of Brokeback Mountain in Madrid was, equally, met with acclaim. Great black singers populate and have hugely shaped the history of opera — Arroyo, Price, Norman, Anderson: these are names we should all know, not just opera fans. Contemporary black opera singers have been vocal about struggles and it’s been good to see companies like The Met and the Canadian Opera Company hire more diverse casts. I want to see more of this, and am equally keen to see related programming expansions; it’s good for audiences, and frankly, it’s what the art demands. Fewer forms are more suited to examine issues of race, exclusion, class, and privilege than opera, which fuses music, theatre, and visual design to make powerful, searing statements that have contemporary relevance. The titular character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a member of the aristocracy who uses his male privilege in every way imaginable; equally vital issues of class and privilege are thoughtfully examined in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as well as Verdi’s Rigoletto;  Rossini’s Maometto II and Verdi’s Aida explore notions of interracial relationships, power, and prejudice. I would argue that even Carmen, perhaps the best-known opera to mainstream audiences, explores all of these things. The strong title character is constantly slurred (as well as sexually exoticized) for being a gypsy, a fact to which the obsessive Don Jose is both drawn and repelled.

So while the three members of The Tenors may claim, “it’s not us, it’s him!” I would respond, it’s not opera, it’s you. All of you. You have reinforced a notion of a deeply relevant, deeply beautiful art form that is hurtful, ignorant, and toxic. Please, just try to be good — a good singer, a good student, and most importantly, a good person: one who doesn’t blame, doesn’t shame, takes responsibility and educates themselves. It’s the least you can do for opera — and the utterly, absolute least you do for Black Lives Matter.

Life in the Poppies

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Prince Igor is haunting.

Days after seeing the Met Opera’s luscious production, I’m still mulling its beautiful marriage of images, design, music, and performance. Though there’s nothing wrong with pure delight and pure entertainment — they make so much of the world go round — seeing the Borodin work did much more than provide an escape from every day mundanities. Thoughts of Ukraine filled my mind, along with more personal reflections on events this past fall; I found myself questioning my relationship with power, both personal and professional, and the role of ego in compromise and defeat. Prince Igor isn’t just beautiful to look at; it’s simultaneously intimate and epic, with resonance in both the inner and outer aspects of existence.

A large part of the opera’s power (as directed and re-imagined by its talented director/designer Dmitri Tcherniakov) is derived through its depiction of war. Though the opera is based on a medieval Russian folk tale involving Igor going off to fight (and he believes,  conquer) the Polovtsians, and subsequently suffering a horrific defeat, Tcherniakov was very selective (make that laser-pointed-strategic) in his use of on and offstage bloodletting. He used a combination of contemporary black-and-white video (using many fast edits and long pans), as well as grand set pieces, costuming, and striking makeup to depict the horrors of war — the loss of life, and the loss of self too. In this Prince Igor, they are very much the same thing.

What I found myself mulling over into the wee hours this past Saturday evening was Igor’s sense of himself, his relationship with other people, and the ways his identity are forced to shift after enduring cataclysmic hardship. Lead bass baritone Ildar Abdrazakov is a thoroughly moving singer, and a very fine actor too;  his expressive face, soft brown eyes, and bear-like physique reveal a man moving between identities, letting go of old ideas and comforts, shifting into far less safe, comfortable, places within himself. These changes aren’t fun or nice or the stuff of easy cliches; this is an Igor who is fallible, failing, heartbreakingly vulnerable, a man struggling with the chimera of ego that kept showing itself in various forms and fashions. He has to relinquish it entirely in order to rebuild, both literally and figuratively.

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This transformation is hinted at through the wonder that is the Polovtsian dances, whose staging, in Tcherniakov’s assured hands, is nothing short of miraculous. Igor whirls around an immense, lush poppy field as human figures dance and undulate around him; it’s dreamy and poetic and earthy yet unearthly. The Met chorus are positioned in boxes close to the stage, allowing dancers to move about freely to the writhing, hypnotic, East-meets-West choreography of Itzik Galili and associate choreographer Elisabeth Gibiat. Igor’s face is one of delight and joy, as if he’s found refuge from the horrors of war and grandiose ambition. Yet we know it’s all an illusion; he’s hallucinating everything. It’s this knowledge that fuels the extraordinary power of the scene. How can something so beautiful be so far removed from reality? And why is reality so much harder and more hideous? Why can’t we stay in the poppy fields forever? Why can’t we whirl, Dervish-like, to the beautiful sounds and visions, forever and ever? It was fascinating to observe Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka) being included in this scene, as if she represents a kind of authenticity and grounding he so desperately lacks. There’s a knowingness to her inclusion here, as if Tcherniakov wants to remind us of the power balances within intimate relationships, and to note how those balances translate in the wider world. To see a man of Abdrazakov’s physicality rendered so vulnerable before the wife whose advice he had earlier eschewed, is deeply moving and wildly important; even amidst the hallucination — or especially because of it — we see a more honest version of Igor that needs to show itself in the real world.

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And it does, eventually show. You sense a deep transformation as Igor wanders, shell-shocked, through what was once his elegant, pristine palace in the final act, when it is a literal shell of its former self. He turns his back on the worshipful masses who herald his return, realizing worship isn’t what’s needed. He woke up, and in so doing, so did we. It’s precisely what his hubris hath wrought, this destruction. The very centrality of Igor’s mission — charging off to some distant victory you are so sure will be yours — has been destroyed; as such, so has Igor’s sense of identity. You can’t find yourself in something so far outside yourself, the production whispers, amidst its gloriously crashing choruses and pounding percussion; you can’t be inauthentic when the chips are down. It won’t work. Hell breaks loose. People die. A part of you dies. And somehow, in some horrifying way, that’s precisely how it should be.

If you get the chance to see Prince Igor either in-person at the Met or through its Live In HD series, go. You’ll mull relationships to power, ego, sacrifice and compromise. You’ll hear beautiful music. You’ll see some gorgeous/disturbing things. You won’t look at the news/your rulers/your lovers/your life the same way again. You will be haunted.

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Home

Photo / my Flickr

Of all the challenges I faced this past autumn and winter, perhaps the biggest was trying to keep my cultural writing alive. That I let something go that meant (means) so much to me is troubling, and I’m hoping to amend that in a number of ways as 2014 unfolds.

Embracing opera in a new, far more powerful way than I have in the past, is the first step in this correction. While studying in New York, I found myself missing the Canadian Opera Company’s zesty experimental approach to an old medium, and its fulsome orchestral embrace of many beloved scores. Sure, the Met is great  but it’s not the same. It’s hard for me to have an honest emotional experience when I feel like I’m part of a capital “e” event; attending an opera at Lincoln Center sometimes always feels that way, to say nothing of the itinerant activities around performances. There’s something so big, so epic, so fraught with legend and the baggage of history, that actually sitting in the Met house proper opens up a world of doubt about whether production (and performance) choices are to move the audience, or merely impress us with illusions of artistic authenticity. (There was, refreshingly, a ton of artistry, authenticity, and heart in the Met production of Strauss’ Die frau ohne schatten last month, but that’s for another blog post. I’m still ruminating on it  — something that’s never happened in my almost thirty years of Met-going experience. Surely it must mean… something? Hmmm.)

Despite the few things the COC’s produced that haven’t work for me (both Martha Clarke’s meta-theatrical vision of Mozart’s The Magic Flute from the early 1990s and a stilted, emotionally hollow production of Elektra in 2007, come to mind), some of the best theater I’ve ever experienced — particularly in the few years — has been from a seat in the Four Seasons Centre. From Christopher Alden’s deeply unsettling vision of Rigoletto in 2011 (a favorite production, having sat through many versions of it), to his wickedly smart, sexy 2012 production of Die Fledermaus, to the jaw-dropping beauty of Peter Sellars’ Tristan und Isolde, and the disturbing magic of Atom Egoyan’s Salome, I go to the COC to be inspired and challenged, disturbed and knocked off balance. Opera is more than pretty songs; it engages heart and brain at once, that understands how thinking, feeling, and being challenged need not be mutually exclusive from being entertained. Opera has become less of a diversion than an immersion, a whole-hearted embrace of something both larger than myself, and yet entirely of myself. 
Photo / my Flickr

I grew up listening to opera; it was as much a part of my household as the music of ABBA, The Carpenters, the Bee Gees, and Queen. Luciano Pavarotti, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dean Martin, and Freddie Mercury were the voices of my childhood. “Saturday Afternoon At The Opera” was (and remains) a tradition. Naturally, I went through the predictable teenaged phase of kicking out, rolling eyes, plugging ears, and closing heart: “turn that shit off!” I found my mother’s opera obsession embarrassing and annoying. I wanted my rock and electronic music on the stereo (loud). The many operas I’d go to as a child and fall asleep halfway through out of youth and it being a school night, I fell asleep to out of sheer disgust and outright boredom. I’d heard it all, and I was no longer interested.

But when I moved to Dublin in my early 20s, I found myself missing the opera world terribly missing the magic of the melody, surely, but missing the drama as well. I have always loved theater; I sought it out as a kid, even running into Atom Egoyan many years ago during a production of King Lear at the Bathurst Street Theatre.  I’ve immersed myself in theater at various points throughout my life: as a writer, an actor, a behind-the-scenes person, a front-of-house person, a PR person, and now, a journalist. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always run to the theater, for community, familiarity, comfort, yes… but for being challenged, too.

Photo / my Flickr

And over the years, I’ve discovered the opera I enjoy most is that which provides a challenge, but always respects the music. I’ve fallen back in love, in a newer, stronger, more adult way, with the music I rejected as a youth. There’s a strange, intoxicating power when theater and music join forces; it is the best kind of sensory overload. Even when the 2010 Tim Albery-directed Aida didn’t work for me, its score — and interpretation — did. A night at the opera reminds me that theater and music is precisely the kind of holy union I want shaping and informing my 2014.

Coming away from a night at the opera, I am inspired to think more deeply not only about the art itself, but about music, science, technology, history, philosophy… even love… and the intimate connections therein. I want to get back to not only writing, but painting, cooking, drawing… to creativity, to authenticity, with head, with heart, taking small footsteps, but always moving forward. 

Something Old

Orpheus & Eurydice, Auguste Rodin, 1893.

The first Friday of every month sees many New York City museums waiving admission fees.

Keen on seeing the newly opened Kandinsky exhibit at the Neue Galerie (a spot I have some history with), I rushed to catch the uptown train, amidst a sticky, stinky, mid-autumn heat wave. Several stops later, with sore feet and aching shoulders, I exited, and found myself nearly running along 86th Street; it was getting onto 6:30pm and I knew the lines might be fierce. Worst fears were confirmed with three-plus blocks of eager, sweaty faces and shuffling sneakers.

Not being keen to deal with the suffocating effects of the oppressive humidity (bugs! sticky armpits! ruined hairdo! oh yes… asthma!), I decided I’d keep on the Fifth Avenue path, and take another look at the Balthus exhibit on at the Met (review forthcoming). The cool air of the Met was a beautiful respite from the heat, and Balthus’ beautifully geometric paintings were a sight for my over-computer-monitored eyes. 
Notes duly taken, I sauntered, enjoying the dusky quiet, and just …looked, a pleasure I rarely allow myself in the cultural realm anymore; it feels like a luxury, dawdling amongst artful things. And yet, as Guardian editor (and part-time classical pianist) Alan Rusbridger writes in his recent memoir, there is “a mundane need to have moments off the hamster wheel of editing [… an] instinct to wall off a small part of my life for creative expression, for ‘culture.’ ”

Serious, capital-J journalism -and its study for me, right now, at NYU -has been eating up every available ounce of creative/mental/emotional/intellectual energy the last five weeks or so. I’m beginning to resent something so central to my being – my arts passion -being ripped away from me, and the chorus of quiet, snarling voices of doubt uttering some uncomfortable phrases: no one’s interested in culture; the arts isn’t real news; you’re wasting your time; no one cares
Reliquary Arm of St. Valentine, 14th century,
Swiss.

And yet, Friday night’s visit to the Met reminded me of the fallacy of those statements, but underscored my determination to find new ways of sharing my passion, and blending that with my writing. Some of you seem to like it. (Thank you to those readers who’ve followed me through the years.) My artsy walkabout allowed me to stare, in the face, two truths: I need to keep writing, in my own way, about culture. There’s a certain sort of longing I’m experiencing, between past and present and future, between what I want and what’s in front of me, to try to take this passion somewhere else, somewhere higher and more powerful and… to be remembered, appreciated, loved in grand and intimate ways, probe, create, fail, and always, always stay authentic to who and what I am.

“Saudade” is a Portuguese word which, roughly translated, means “longing” or “nostalgic longing.” I first heard it used at a lecture in Dublin given by singer/writer Nick Cave. He defined it thusly:

We all experience within us what the Portuguese call “saudade”, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. The love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up though our wounds.

Whether or not you believe in God doesn’t matter in order to understand saudade, or to appreciate its power in a writer’s (or creator’s) life. The idea (and experience) of longing is a very, very old thing, one expeirenced in the biblical cry, “why hast thou forsaken me?“; it also colors the entirety of Psalms, in fact, and is glimpsed in the hieroglyphic scenes of ancient Pharoahs raising their hands in praise of the sun. In the act of worship (surely a consummate act of love joined with faith), or musing on the nature of the divine, or amidst faulting that which we love and want to be joined with, we express our nostalgic longing for something beyond ourselves, and yet, deeply of ourselves.

Like the German “sehnsucht,” saudade has deep, earthy roots, and divine, heavenly aspirations. The calm and cool of the museum, its lack of usual noisy visitors, the enveloping darkness and the shadows cast by the strategic, subtle lights, all created the contemplative environment I so craved, one where I wondered at the role of this oldest of emotional experiences, and its role in creation: of life, ideas, even… hey, new, artistic ways of telling and sharing stories.

Cleopatra, William Wetmore Story, 1869.

Saudade sits at the heart of the art I love most: it is a longing for something beyond itself. That “thing” -historically expressed as an old man with a beard, a round disk, elements of the earth – doesn’t have to be specifically religious. Lately I’ve wondered at the line between the earthly and the divine, and how it finds expression: marble, ivory, ink, oil, bronze, walnut, granite, graphite, silver, glass. Then there’s sound (singing, music, the plucking of strings, the beating of drums) and of course, bytes and pixels. We engage these things out of a certain love. Don’t we?

What is longing? Why do humans engage in it? There are no concrete answers, but again, I think such a feeling has to do with trying to scratch at the transcendent – something beyond us, past us, past our comprehension, and yet of us, with a certain familiarity and perhaps, a certain chemistry. Maybe it’s canvas, a slab of marble, maybe it’s the act of creating itself, maybe it’s God’s face, a lover’s face, our newborn’s face, the sunrise… the sunset. The cycles of life, death, sex, regeneration. We long for this kind of connection – to divine things, human things, beauty and pain wrapped together. Some of the best love songs capture this with a swoon-worthy precision (listen to anything by the aforementioned Mr. Cave or Leonard Cohen); other works of art -whether they be religious or secular -also distill this “saudade” into a grand, and yet deeply intimate, experience that whispers secrets of that most bewildering of trinities: love, lust, longing.

Bellini’s Norma, which I had the pleasure of seeing recently at the Metropolitan Opera, offers a heartbreaking portrait of just that trinity, with generous dollops of transcendent belcanto splendor. There’s something about the title character that seeks something beyond herself, her distant lover, the friendship of her handmaiden, the power of her tribe; it’s only when she is burned (with her beloved, no less) that she will come to be joined in a kind of union with divinity. Even as she faces disgrace and punishment, there is a discernible quality of saudade -in the libretto as well as the music -that lifts the opera out of the tawdry and into the realm of awe-inspiring beauty. There’s something divine about not only the story but the music, in and of itself. It scratches at a divinity it channels, pouring out its longing for a sort of union that is expressed physically in the love between the two main  characters at the opera’s end.

Diptych with Scenes of the life of Christ, Carved in Germany, 14th century

The opera whispered the questions; Friday night’s museum walkabout said them right out loud, confronting me with some uncomfortable feelings. Not only did I need to be reminded of my passion for arts and culture, but to underline the role of saudade in my life and work. There’s something magical about visiting dark places you’re familiar with; you know what’s around every corner, but you’re not quite sure how it’ll present itself without the safe filter of daylight. Darkened corners provide opportunities for dalliances, an empty tomb brings thoughts of permanency, changeability, communion with divinity and the folly of desiring such a thing. Beautiful sculpted faces remind one of a lover both human and divine. Night whispers its sad, beautiful song of saudade through such moments, and such intimacy with art, old and new, solid and not. It colors everything, personal and professional. Living with saudade feels like the right position for the artist -and the journalist -living, sometimes battling, inside of me. Experiencing the feeling of intense longing – for God, for blessings, for perfection, for failure, for permanence, for change, for flesh, for spirit, for love… for creation itself.

Writing Inside (And Outside)


Grad school has left little time or energy to write (/think / dream) for myself, in my own space and in my own way. Inspiration’s been backed up, dried up, squished, smushed, almost forgotten. It hasn’t been a good feeling.

But a recent exercise in something called “intracranial” journalism (another term for stream-of-consciousness writing) got things flowing (or, semi-flowing) again. It was like putting on a favorite nightie found at the back of the closet -an experience not altogether foreign, what with the huge move back this past August.

After some nice encouragement to continue exploring this genre, I wanted to share my first formal attempt with readers. I’m starting to re-think my place lately – in journalism, in arts, in social media, even in NYC -and seem to keep circling back to finding a spot where I can integrate all my passions. Maybe this is a first step? You decide.

______________

The green jewels of salad leaves, the ruby red of berries, oil gleaming and dancing with the salty-sweet balsamic river, extra sweater and out the door, whooshing down elevator and clomping across lino lobby, footsteps echoing off ancient tile. Small hands wrapped around hot tea in purple tin, quick broad steps down a drum-filled street, to more steps, NYPD peering down stairs, badges glinting against the orange-red setting sun. One more down, another set of stairs, another… and another. Grime, grub, a million days and a million sweating bodies, a million sad bored faces, tracing and trudging over cold concrete and still, hot air. Over right, over left. Take the M, don’t take the M. Wait. And wait. Wait.

Headlights. Hope. A quick trip. Lower back yowl. Empty seat. Relief. Glum silence and squeaking brakes. Elbowing past ladies in heels and men in too-tight suits, the shiny shrieking harpies of neon beckoning, a shrine of Kodak and Samsung, of Annie and Once, of Big Macs and sunglasses. The land of the free, the home of the brave.

Follow the voices. Follow the music. Follow what your soul is telling you to do, where you’re being pulled… by God? By light? By love? By nostalgia sentiment qua qua qua divinity in denim smirking at you from a vintage steering wheel in a stupid youth misspent and half-forgotten? Let’s say it was magic, always the magic, the silent, loud, calm, chaotic wordless wonder of this… this grand Russian madness, this functioning chaos, this opera, of cars and buses and tourists and fans and lights, winking, beckoning…  and red chairs set up in rows, red carpets set up in rows, you’re royalty, come sit down, come listen.

Tatiana’s writing a letter, she’s berating herself, she thinks she can convince him, she can change his mind… she can’t change his mind of course, we all know what’s coming, but the music… the sound, Tchaikovsky’s wall of gorgeous vibrant sound washes over the assembled, the bypassers in suits frown and pause, looking up, around, then straight ahead, cocking head at that square with the singing bodies and the big dresses, the men with muttonchops and the fake falling snow. That grand, gorgeous sound.

There’s a scramble for seats, mittened hands holding steaming cups of hot chocolate, it’s so cold now, but it’s so hot… the sound is coming like a gush of joy, of grief, of relief, of youth and hope and a full, fat embrace of life and all its painful gut-pulling glory… even Elmo stops, Cooke Monster stops, Spider Man stops, Batman stops, everything and everyone absolutely stops… and … and… and… surges, gushing… moving, feeling, flowing, dancing, breathing, fucking, eating, drinking, waving, walking… walking away… but you’re not.

You know why you’re here, not even the cold could keep you away. Nothing will. Nothing could. Nothing else matters.

Cinemoperatic

Watching opera in a cinema is strange. Are you supposed to clap? Would it be weird? Can you talk? Can you eat popcorn? Would it be wrong to unwrap candies?

I got a mini-schooling in the un-fine art of opera-cinema-going recently when I attended a showing of Lucia Di Lammermoor, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as part of their popular The Met: Live In HD Series. Candy-wrapping and cellphone talking aside (both are frowned on with equal displeasure -though I wasn’t guilty of either, honest), it was a mainly positive experience, marred only by poor directorial choices within the broadcast and incredibly dull color that washed out the set and beautiful costumes, making it a less rich visual experience that it should’ve been.

The story of Donizetti’s 1835 opera is based on Scottish writer Walter Scott’s eighteenth century novel The Bride of the Lammermoor, and focuses on the warring clans of Ravenswood and Ashton. Passionate, strong-willed Lucy becomes enamored of the penniless chief of a rival clan, but is forced to marry someone who’ll be good for the waning family fortunes, and subsequently goes insane, killing her groom and dying of grief. The novel is a long, drawn-out portrait of ancient tribalism set within a nasty, dark world of family and money; Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano found rich, ripe stuff in translating Scott’s words to the stage.

In Mary Zimmerman‘s haunting production set in the mid-to-late 19th century, we find a world where everyone harbors a secret and is guilty of something, through their own actions or those of their ancient clans. Though the title character (the Italian-ized “Lucia”) secretly loves the worn family enemy, there is still a true innocence about her, a quality that was laid especially bare in soprano Natalie Dessay‘s emotional portrayal. Her delicate, bird-like frame was used to incredible effect, especially since she was cast with the tall, broad likes of tenor Joseph Calleja, as her lover Edgardo, and imposing baritone Ludovic Tezia as her brother, Enrico.

As might be expected from a Met production, the singing, along with Patrick Summers‘ authoritative conducting, were top-notch. It was, however, difficult to fully appreciate Mara Blumenfeld’s gorgeous costuming or Daniel Ostling’s deliciously creepy set design, owing to a woeful lack of brightness and clarity in the transmission itself. Whether a signal problem or a projection technicality, the lack of clarity and brightness greatly diminished the grandeur of the spectacle; colors were, for the most part, dull and dark. “High Definition”? Not quite. The scene in which Lucia is first introduced to her family-approved groom-to-be, Arturo (Matthew Plenk) found her wearing a detailed lace/brocade red dress -the only red in the entire color scheme of the production (not counting the bloodied wedding gown later on) -and instead of blazing out from the screen, it merely yawned in a dusty fuschia. We know the Scottish moors are muddy… but not that muddy. Hopefully the folks in Egypt, Spain, and Portugal got a clearer picture.

Equally, Canadian director Barbara Willis Sweete, who helmed the live broadcast (shown across 1500 cinemas in 46 countries, no less) focused too much by… focusing too much. It’s deeply unfortunate that the grand, creepy majesty of Zimmerman’s production was lost because of an over-emphasis on close-ups, weird angles, zooms, and fast (/nausea-inducing) cross-stage pans. (And apparently, I’m not the only one who’s noticed that tendency in Sweete’s filmed-opera work.) There were a myriad of poor and even bizarre choices, indicating complete over-excitement and/or absolute unfamiliarity with the material. It’s hard to say which, but in any case, it made watching Lucia di Lammermoor in a cinema a very taxing (and occasionally confusing) endeavor.

During the dramatic second-act showdown in which the desperate brother forces his grieved sister to sign a marriage certificate, Sweete jumped between close-ups of the faces of performers Dessay and Tezier; we had to guess at their emotional states, which, especially in opera, tend to make the most sense in a wholly physical (not merely facial) sense. Were they mad? Conflicted? Same with vital details: did the ring Edgardo gave Lucia get thrown? Where? Did Enrico step on it? Body language would tellingly indicate such vital subtleties and shifts, but we weren’t given shots that would indicate either communication (unsung) or clarity (contextually), just close-ups of scrunched-up faces. Wouldn’t a wide shot to show their (clearly symbolic) distance, with the occasional close-up for emotional effect, be a better choice? It would also render their disquieting, tender-passionate physical interactions more all the more visceral.

The emotional resonance of the scene, like many, became as muddied as the color, and it was an unfortunate distillation of the problem of bridging opera and cinema: keeping the idea of staging alive. Zimmerman offered an incredible vision of the opera’s famous Sextet, by having the fancily-attired guests assembled for Lucia’s engagement party (a gathering the nearly-broke Enrico has staged to re-enter society) fan around her as she sits, surrounded entirely by men, and readying their pose for a waiting photographer. An oddly-angled wide shot used in the Live HD Broadcast completely diffused the visual power of that moment -one that (probably) worked perfectly in a live setting. The staging was excellent, thought-provoking union of sight and sound that underlined Zimmerman’s themes of family, responsibility, femininity, and notions of success. It was a pity that high-point was diminished through poor cinematographic choices.

Watching Lucia di Lammermoor on the big screen, the word “staging” never seemed more apt. It’s unwise and perhaps even foolhardy to shoot something as a movie if it’s already been laid out for the stage. It winds up looking hokey and induces some unwelcome dizziness, particularly when coupled with poor picture quality. In the famous Mad Scene in the third act, the audience was treated to a close-up of a doctor readying a sedative to give to poor, raving Lucia. Having been mesmerized by Dessay’s deliciously delirious, and awesomely beautiful handling of one of the most difficult passages in the history of vocal music, our suspension of disbelief (and lovely musical hypnosis) was cut egregiously short, as we noted, in said close-up, the lack of actual syringe, or liquid, going into the needle, breaking the magic of the scene and the audience’s trust in what was being depicted. There are so many other cinematographic choices that would’ve better served the stage presentation and further accentuated the themes of Zimmerman’s production, but they were either not taken enough, or completely ignored in favour of a more “cinematic” experience. Alas.

The plus side to those litany of close-ups (and for theater-loving me, it was a big plus) was the opportunity to see operatic acting at work. Most performers I’ve interviewed have told me it’s dangerously easy to fall into the notorious “park and bark” mode; you simply stand and …well, deliver. Sweete’s over-direction, if anything, offered a rare opportunity to view those frequently taken-for-granted acting chops. When it came to the title role, I found Dessay’s absolute love of the part and history with the opera obvious in every single scene she was in. The French soprano lived the role, sometimes to Sarah-Bernhardt-eque heights, but kept intact an innate sense of “fragility” -a word she used frequently in her intermission interviews with soprano/host Renee Flemming. Her tiny frame and expressive face gave her the look of a wounded sparrow surrounded by hungry wolves -or in tenor Calleja’s case, a gentle bear with a very bad temper.

The Malta-born singer used his considerable physicality to display an awesome, terrible violence in the scene where his character learns Lucia has married another, clearing rows of chairs in one scary *thwap* of the arm -but he also displayed incredible vulnerability and despair in his final, famous death scene. Calleja has a Valentino-like range of emotional expressions that are perfectly suited to stage work; he plays joy, grief, anger, rage, and anguish large, entering one scene with a scary scowl, another with bright eyes and a broad smile. It looked silly close-up, and it wasn’t at all suited to film, but it fit the demands of the stage beautifully. And really, it was his voice that kept my attention, for it is, quite simply, astonishing. I’ve not heard that quality of tone since I sat in the Met and watched Luciano Pavarotti perform many years ago. Calleja certainly stands on his own as an opera star on the rise, but with a voice like that, comparisons to the Pav are inevitable -and right.

In the acting sphere however, French baritone Ludovic Tezia stood in direct opposition to Calleja, and, in my humble, non-opera-expert opinion, quietly stole the show. His was a nuanced, layered performance, displaying the kind of brewing rage you might experience before a huge, violent calamity. Tezia perfectly tempered his performance to the demands of filming, and while the audience at the Met may’ve suffered (you can’t see that kind of subtlety from the Family Circle), he was absolutely magnetic, his rich, caramel voice showing a remarkable range of color and feeling, his acting displaying a man at odds with his life’s choices. With a raised eyebrow, a cock of the head, widening eyes, or a slow raise of shoulders, the honoured French singer displayed a remarkably menacing subtlety that left a deeply disturbing, if sad impression of a man who, to quote Tezia (again chatting with Flemming backstage), was forced to bear too much weight on his clearly-incapable shoulders.I didn’t perceive him as an out-and-out villain, but as a deeply layered, conflicted man whose complex personality was perfectly reflected in Zimmerman’s grey-hued world.

I’m tempted to attend the re-broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor (April 6th in the US; April 2nd in Canada), to enjoy these fine performances, and perhaps re-think my dislike of Sweete’s work. I totally loved her filmed version of the Timothy Findley play Elizabeth Rex, and I wonder if the distractions -people fumbling with candies, a man talking loudly on his cell phone, my own probably-too-close seat -added to my intense reaction to her avant-garde approach to cinematography. I also want to hear those beautiful opera voices again, and more closely observe the creepy Lucia/Enrico interactions. Mind you, I’ll be sure to take a Gravol before the Scottish tale unfolds. Maybe even two.

Whither Aida?

Two vastly different, but related experiences of grandeur, have got me thinking about the value of big productions, culturally and otherwise. The Canadian Opera Company opened its latest season October 2nd with a startling, strangely unmoving production of Verdi’s Aida. The company, headed by the brilliant Alexander Neef, has seen an upswing in its popularity among younger culture vultures of the city (so much so that local fave Broken Social Scene will be headling their annual fundraising ball) while keeping their vital older subscriber base happy -until now, anyway. The production of Aida on now manages to confuse, infuriate, and perhaps worst of all… bore.

Like any good opera-goer, I’ve seen my share of staged Aidas -mainly at the Met, it should be noted, with live animals & a chorus numbering in the hundreds. Budget?!, you want to shriek when the gold-leaf-everythings are wheeled in alongside blinding elephants and bored-looking horses, what budget? Aida isn’t staged too often precisely because it’s so expensive, and often, the baggage that travels with it isn’t just the kind you can see. And the magic of the romance inherent within the tale gets lost amidst the grandeur. The tale of the Ethiopian slave-princess and her doomed love affair with the Egyptian captain Radames is Big Operatic Melodrama -which is fine -though coupled with Verdi’s stirring, awesome score, means you have the makings of an audience full of expectations: the set should be big, the emoting should be grand, the orchestra should be really, really loud. Right? Wrong, or so says director Tim Albery and COC music director Johannes Debus. Albery has purposely shied away from the Big Everything approach, eschewing grandeur in favour of story, subtext, and even meta-theatrical musings on the nature of performer-audience relations.

So there’s no Egyptophilia here, which would be a refreshing change if Albery’s production wasn’t so intent on going in the contrary direction for the sake of it. It’s a noble instinct to try to re-define an old operatic chestnut, but the idea kills the emotion. Set in some 1980s Trump-like super-state, where the Egyptian politicos are in tailored suits (a la Mad Men) and the ladies are trussed up like gaudy pseudo-Ivana cyborgs, the delicacy and beauty of both the story and the music are nearly lost. Nearly. Thank heavens (make that Isis) for Debus’ stunningly keen musical direction. Never have I heard such a beautiful, stirring, poetic rendering of Verdi’s score as here. It greatly helps that the cast, lead by the utterly awesome Sondra Radvanovsky (making her COC debut) are fantastic. Radvanovsky’s delicate, heartfelt approach to the material is gorgeous.

If only the same could be said of Albery’s direction, which positively reeks of over-stylization and heavy-handedness. While I enjoyed his underlining of the horrors of colonialism during the triumphal march, the gold-lame-come-stripper priestesses and humping skeletons did little to add to one’s understanding or appreciation of Ghislanzoni‘s libretto; the whole concept felt forced, insipid, and arrogant -and playing right into the kind of grandeur it was supposedly turning its back on.

In my next blog, I’ll be detailing the big event that did move me deeply -one that openly embraced largeness, and used it to incredible effect to create a sense of intimacy and wonder. Stay tuned…

Aida Photo Credits: © 2010 Michael Cooper

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