Tag: vision

Alexander Neef, OnP, Opera de Paris, General Director

Alexander Neef: “The Essence Of Theatre Is To Engage In A Dialogue”

History can be many things, but mostly, and especially within the classical arts, it is heavy. Alexander Neef, General Director of the Opéra national de Paris (OnP), is aware of this weight, yet he views it as a rich inspiration. The German administrator, who was the company’s Casting Director from 2004 to 2008 before becoming General Director of the Canadian Opera Company for twelve years, came to his current position in autumn 2020, much earlier than planned and smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. It proved the first of many adversities managing one of the opera world’s most celebrated and storied institutions, one which has been known as much for its variety of names as for its trials and tribulations in the distant and not-so-distant past.

Those challenges, particularly since 2020, are very real: financial pressures, strikes, accusations of racism, the sudden resignation of Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. Where there is strife, however, there is also hope. This past March saw French-Senegalese OnP ballet dancer Guillaume Diop join the company’s coveted “Etoile” (star) category; he is the first Black artist to achieve the top rank. In 2020 Diop had co-authored a manifesto (“On The Racial Question in Opera”) which criticized discrimination within the organization. Neef, as you’ll read, took these concerns seriously, and met them with his own initiatives. A report commissioned by the company in February 2021 stated that diversity was seriously lacking, with Diversity Referent Myriam Mazouzi (who is also Director of the OnP Academy, a training ground for young artists) underlining the need for the company to “get out of our walls” and “open up our recruitment channels, otherwise we always have the same profiles and we become poorer.” To facilitate this opening, the company embarked on an ambitious initiative in French Guyana in 2022 to encourage and promote local talent. L’Opéra en Guyane works in close collaboration with Guyanese cultural institutions and includes all training in voice and dance as well as set design and makeup. The program ran this past October and November, and will return to Guyana again in March 2024, with its development being chronicled in a documentary series on POP (Paris Opera Play), the company’s dedicated streaming platform.

POP itself is impressive, hosting an immense and ever-updated archive of anytime-is-a-good-time (read: audience-friendly) viewing which includes all aspects of OnP’s considerable output: ballet, orchestral concerts, and opera (with subtitles available in English and French), as well as backstage documentaries, masterclasses, and artist interviews. The platform is the realization of the company’s earlier foray into video streaming, l’Opéra chez soi, launched just after Neef’s arrival in December 2020, and elegantly demonstrates a commitment to something beyond sexy opera branding, an overused aspect within the current classical-marketing landscape which mostly involves substance-free clickbait and/or posts (whether on social media or websites proper) with plenty of seemingly intellectual finery but ultimately bereft of the humanity and depth their subjects demand. POP runs counter to this trend; a thoughtful and accessible platform, its user-friendly design and wide range of subject matter implies a trust to let its users decide for themselves what is sexy – or intriguing, provocative, challenging, entertaining, engaging.

The platform’s launch happened almost concurrently to news of OnP joining forces with behemothic streaming giant Apple Music Classical. Along with playlists and previews, the channel features two special sections, curated by José Martinez, Director of Dance, and Neef, respectively. As noted in Van Magazine this past August, OnP has proven remarkably adept at attracting the ever-important young audiences, with all of these initiatives demonstrating a deeply intelligent stance in attracting younger people (although €10 tickets can’t hurt either). ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre) takes things one step further. The company’s first French young lyric orchestra works in direct partnership with eleven different French conservatoires and provides opportunities for apprenticeships and performances on the main stage of the Bastille, the more modern of the company’s two spaces, the other being the famed Garnier. Each space comes, of course, with its own particular set of heavy histories.

Amidst all this – whither music? Gluck, Lully, Rameau, Cherubini, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Thomas, Halévy, Stravinsky, Messiaen: a partial list of composers who have enjoyed historic premieres with the Opéra and a veritable who’s who of classical music history, albeit a lineup some may perceive as creaky in 2023. Those names, however, sit comfortably beside contemporary ones including Adams, Adés, Saariaho, Kurtág, as well as acclaimed modern directors like Lydia Steier, Kirill Serebrennikov, Wajdi Mouawad, and Barrie Kosky. Ballet is an equally intriguing mix of traditional (Nureyev, Ashton) and modern (Pina Bausch, Jiří Kylián). Navigating the shifting classical landscape of the 21st century, particularly in a post-pandemic landscape, is scary business for any house, requiring a good deal of confidence in both institution and audiences, and a willingness to push the expectations and boundaries of both. The ambitiousness of Neef’s plans combined with an ever-smart approach to programming and production means audiences can expect slightly more than polite visions of familiar (or even unfamiliar) territory.

In our last exchange in 2020, conducted when he was still in Toronto, Neef emphasized a need for the new; in 2023 Paris, there is a broader if no less compelling view. Nothing quite new, as Roman statesman Cicero noted in Brutus, is perfect. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted, particularly at a time when the opera world feels more divided than ever, as much by geographies and money as by ideologies and history. But history is, like the future, only heavy without the muscles  – and the brains – to bear it; Alexander Neef has both, and then some.

When we last spoke you mused on the role of so-called “safe” repertoire and audience fatigue; has time in Paris altered your views?

I don’t think so. One of the things that’s come out of the pandemic is to consider the thinking process around what do we do here. We are called the Paris National Opera; we have an obligation for specificity in the planning and programming, but also we have to ask what is our identity and how do we express via our programming? I think there are some very simple principles that have come from that question, and they are referenced in our programming now. First we have to take care of our own repertoire , which is a very large repertoire and includes all the pieces created at the Paris Opera and predecessor organizations over the centuries. That’s why you’ll find one or two productions which represent our house repertoire , if you want – Charpentier’s Médée, for instance. There’s a very rich variety to choose from. The other aspect is pieces which we have not premiered here specifically but which are part of French repertoire – works which are not in our repertoire currently which we are bringing back, like what we’ve done with Cendrillon, Faust, Romeo et Juliet, also Massenet’s Don Quichotte which we are presenting later this season. We are one of the biggest companies in the world, so yes, there is a standard repertoire.

The last part of this, which is also important for identity, is 20th and 21st century repertoire. The priority is not necessarily commissioning – as you know it takes time for those pieces to be developed – but to look at successful pieces of the very recent past and bring them to the Paris Opera, like Kurtág’s Fin de partie in the 21-22 season, or The Exterminating Angel, which we’ll do later this season. With Angel it’s also the first new production after the world premiere that we’ll be doing. All that is a very deliberate attempt to bring those pieces to the repertoire by presenting them often, which means if someone has created something great and we think it’s great, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t present it here just because we haven’t commissioned it. We have a couple co-commissions coming up; one we did with Festival D’Aix is coming to us soon; another, a substantial piece at La Scala, will be presented in Italian there and then come here later in French.

So to circle back to your original question, when we do the revivals of the standard or even the new productions, we try to bring people to the company who hadn’t sung here before and create a relationship of trust with the audience; even though they might not know all the names on the playbill, they can expect it will be a quality proposal. We just had Tamara Wilson onstage here – she had sung Turandot in Toronto in 2019. It was highlighted (in Paris) because Sondra (Radvanovsky) had to cancel the run and Tammy was slotted into the opening. People were like, “Who is this Turandot I’ve never heard of?” – but now everybody knows who Tamara Wilson is. Sometimes we have to have the confidence and trust to just do the things we feel are right.

House identity is something I’ve considered a lot this year. You told the New York Times in 2021 that when you were hiring a diversity officer that you wanted to put on “opera and ballet by 21st century artists for 21st century audiences” – what role has that diversity initiative played in house identity?

We’re lucky in Paris, the debate around diversity is much less charged than in North America. I say that without criticism of what’s going on in America, but it does create an opportunity here to get things done more quickly because we’re not in conflict but in a spirit of working together. One of the things that happened concurrent to BLM (Black Lives Matter), I was still in Toronto, confined in my kitchen then, but already appointed to take over in Paris, was that we decided to commission a diversity report for my arrival. At the same time a group of artists and other employees of colour in the company reached out and said, “We want to talk to you, we want to know how you feel about this issue.” They wrote a manifesto which was published in August 2020, when I was almost there – though I wasn’t supposed to be, I was supposed to arrive a year later – but at that time we had an initiative coming from the incoming leadership and the employees. There was a base of discussion which was almost immediate because we did not need to get over a steep mountain of conflict. We now have an advisory committee who meet regularly with staff but also with people from outside the opera, where we discuss all issues related to our repertoire and performances, as well as recruitment practices and so on. The discussions are all evolving.

We also started a big education outreach project in French Guyana with two main purposes, one of them to just run one of our established outreach programs for young people there but also to find talent, mostly for dance, but also for singing and instruments in the long run, people can be trained to reach the levels of excellence we would have to expect of the artists who perform here.

“If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it.”


What role does the newly-created ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre – Learning the Orchestra) play in all this?

It’s too early to say yet, it’s just started; we’ve had two or three weekends when they’ve been together so far. But I think it’s in the same spirit. Today in France most musicians are the sons and daughters of other musicians – they get into the field or some form of arts environment early on and there are few obstacles if they want to learn to sing or play an instrument. Our challenge is to open up the pipeline, to create a larger pipeline, different pipelines, because one of the crucial issues of recruitment is that if you always look in the same spots and at the same people you’ll always find the same thing. The moment you open up and look at things a bit more broadly, there will be different talent. And all of this is not part of any ideology, but it’s more if I can say, the perennial nature of our art form: yes, what we do is opera and ballet for 21st century artists by 21st century artists. If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it. The imminent challenge for the repertoire is obviously finding people who are trained to perform it at our level, and who may also say, “We still want to sing Don Giovanni or Don Carlo, or dance Swan Lake or Giselle.” It’s for everybody to find themselves in what we do, on the performers’ side just as much as the audience’s side.

Alexandra Wilson recently wrote at The Critic that “It is not opera’s job to do social work.” I wonder what you make of that with relation to your various initiatives.

I think what we benefit from and use to our advantage, since we have a strong critical mass for culture in France but especially in Paris, is that we use our cultural weight to be heard, to be seen. What I’ve discovered being here is that whatever we do there is a lot of attention; when I commissioned the diversity report it was like a signal. We can put the subject on the map. So we try to do that quite deliberately now, to choose the subjects we want to talk about in order to get them the visibility we can, in our position, provide.

La Vestale, with Lydia Steier directing, may or may not make the world a better place, but it does seem like an interesting symbol of where the company is at now.

That’s fair, but like I said before: if we want to do the repertoire which has a reputation of being difficult to realize onstage, then we will tell it our way. La Vestale has certain formalisms the audiences of today are not quite familiar with today, so it’s vital to find not only one artist but a group of artists to say, “We want to defend this repertoire for an audience of today and we actually want to tell a story.” Whatever we do, whether it’s more or less traditional – even though one doesn’t know what that exactly is – or completely out-there avant-garde, it’s a reading of a piece, because we cannot not offer readings of pieces. We have to hire a cast, a director, and a conductor to read the piece for us; it’s not all there in the score and they just have to do what’s written. It would be an oversimplification to think that. We need people who actually do it. Otherwise we can sit with the score and read it, which is a more personal and private thing, but there is no unalterable truth that will always be the same. That’s why we still keep working on repertoire both recent and old – things like Médée, which we’re doing since the first time we created it in 1693.

Does that history feel heavy at points?

I find it rather exhilarating, I have to say, because there is a richness and also a high responsibility for this repertoire – but also an incredible richness. I find it really quite wonderful there’s that depth to draw from.

“The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one.”


There were very polarized reactions to Robert Wilson’s staging of Turandot in Paris recently; do you find yourself having to explain or justify your choices to your audience?

First of all there’s no such thing as The Audience, anywhere. Secondly, and I said it at the COC that we had 2000 people every night; here at the Bastille we have 2700, and a different audience. The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one. You are part of the collective who sits there but you also experience it all for yourself. So of course there will always be audiences who are more conservative and others who are more avant-garde, and then everything in-between. And in the end it’s very simply, “I like / don’t like what I see onstage” – that’s fine. But if we maintain there is not solely one truth in the pieces we present, then there can’t be one opinion, no matter how we present them. Ultimately it’s not about liking or not-liking something but being able to talk about it. The essence of theatre is to engage in a dialogue about what we’ve experienced together onstage. That dialogue is something that’s big in everyday life here, and it can be made richer because of people having a deep cultural routine. I found it was more restricted in Toronto – there I found that even with the variety of choices, people stick to the offers of one cultural organization. I would meet people at cocktail parties and they’d say, “I’m a ballet person” – fine, good, there’s no discrimination – but in Paris there’s a much stronger overall cultural routine which has been in place since early childhood. People don’t feel the need to choose between the ballet or the opera or the museum or the symphony. What keeps fascinating me, and it’s so different culturally, is that they bring kids to the theatre, young kids, on weekdays when there’s school the next day…

My mother did that…

Exactly! People do it because they feel it’s important their child sees this or that. It’s not the last thing you do, but the first thing you do. And I think that regularity with culture changes a person, it sets up a cultural routine. And if it’s diverse it can bring a lot to audiences and people in general. So to go back to your quote about opera’s job, we are not making the world a better place – but maybe through our work we can get people to think about how to make the world a better place.

“It’s not going to be a list of 25”


Finally: I have to ask you about your GMD search.

It’s going slowly but surely. Since Gustavo left earlier than he was supposed to, I decided not to jump to fast conclusions because I thought it would be better to use the time, mostly with the musicians of the orchestra, to engage in a real dialogue. That’s something that had been done the last few years but which had been quite disturbed because of the pandemic. Who are the conductors we really like? Who are the people who debuted during covid, maybe not under ideal conditions? Who are people who’ve come once that we want to see again? Who are people we’ve never met but want to meet? So over time let’s say maybe over the course of the season, we come to, or by default, a small list of people we’re interested in – it’s not going to be a list of 25 – between the people who have declared themselves candidates and the people we want to be candidates. Without necessarily formalizing that or having it in the public sphere, I think between the musicians and us, we will have more in-depth discussions about what we want, for the company, for the orchestra; what kind of profile does that person have, the one who comes closest to the ideal? All of which is to say: it’s an ongoing process.

Top photo: Elena Bauer / OnP
Macbeth, Opernhaus Zurich, Verdi, Barrie Kosky, Markus Brück, Monika Rittershaus, classical, staging, performance, opera, Switzerland, production

Monika Rittershaus: Photographing Opera’s “Scene And Unseen”

Lately the idea of rejuvenation intrigues. As I wrote in the introduction to a recent post detailing a newcomer’s thoughts on Bizet’s Carmen and the opera-going experience itself, ideas related to perception, exposure, cynicism, approach, and re-approach have been more active than usual. There is a certain value to seeing something so famous with new eyes (and ears), particularly given the grim realities pandemic continues to present. To make the effort to re-appreciate opera anew is to confront old questions with a new awareness. What is opera – is it only singing? Is it also scoring? Is it theatre? Is it design? Is it sitting in the dark, in silence, with strangers? Is it some alchemical combination of these things? Rediscovery demands return – and not only in a literal sense – and return demands simplicity. To return to an art form one once loved experiencing live is to take off the over-tight bustier and flesh-gouging garters, to peel off eyelashes and unpin hair, to throw dress, fan, and shoes across the room and not worry what anyone thinks; it is to see and feel opera naked, unadorned, free from pretense, bare-faced. There is a freedom in that – for voice, score and theatre, as much as for the curiosity which must fuel them all.

Indeed regular reassessments are needed, for audiences and industry – to search for and find the freedom such curiosity might grant; to embrace the responsibility which is inherent to that (and all) freedom; to constantly bring the clarity such freedom grants to an art form which can (does) often fall into the traps of obfuscation, disorder, decay, and intransigence. Thus is the work of some artists who work with and around houses all the more important; often their work is what opens the door – to freedom, return, simplicity. They aren’t so much working on the peripheries as within the very essence, keeping that sense of curiosity ever alive. I have admired the work of Monika Rittershaus for many years; her stage photography graces many a program book and web page. She has shot productions for Los Angeles Opera, Staatsoper Hamburg, Bayerische Staatsoper, Komische Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Teatro Real Madrid, and Opernhaus Zürich, to name just a few. Her work is a quietly powerful integration of dramaturgical and humanistic, revealing opera as an art form comprised of sounds, sights, and souls. Born in Wuppertal, the busy stage photographer first studied philosophy, German language and literature, and art history. Finding inspiration in the works of choreographer Pina Bausch, she went on to study photography in Dortmund, which led to commissions in Vienna, Basel, Bregenz, Hamburg and Stuttgart. Rittershaus has been a freelance theatre and concert photographer since 1992.

Monika Rittershaus, stage, photography, opera, classical, arnoldsche, fotografien The scene and the unseen: Oper in Bildern – Fotografien von Monika Rittershaus (arnoldsche) is a new book filled with imagery shot between  a variety of locales between 2006 and 2022. The work, edited by Iris Maria vom Hof, demonstrates a breadth of modern directorial vision, with shots of the stagings of Christof Loy, Claus Guth, Christoph Marthaler, Patrice Chéreau, Hans Neuenfels, Calixto Bieito, Silvia Costa, Romeo Castellucci, Andreas Homoki, Nadja Loschky, Mariame Clément, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Kirill Serebrennikov, and Tobias Kratzer, among many more. Stagings by Achim Freyer, whom Rittershaus names in our exchange (below) and Barrie Kosky, who writes an introduction, are also featured. The many hours spent pouring through the book’s thick pages bring memories and a feeling that perhaps operatic rejuvenation is not as far as one may think; I’ve seen some of the productions featured in this book, and these photos don’t make me nostalgic so much as clear-eyed. Kosky writes that Rittershaus “seems to sense the inner world of a moment and to know at exactly the right moment when to click her camera. There is an extraordinary intuition at work here. Perceptive, refined, and sophisticated.[…] She doesn’t document the moment. She x-rays the moment.”

Rittershaus and I recently enjoyed an email exchange following an autumn in which she photographed the new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by Dmitri Tcherniakov for Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin).

Monika Rittershaus

How much of a prior working relationship do you have (or require) with a director in order to photograph their production?

There is an initial collaboration with each directing team. Before I go to the rehearsal, I read or listen to the piece to be photographed. For world premieres, I ask for any materials that are already accessible. I watch the first rehearsals without a camera to understand, as much as possible, how a production is ‘built’ and what the specific concern of the team might be with this work. If I can work with a team more often, understanding becomes greater and mutual trust stronger. So an intensive working relationship is very nice for me in any case, even if it doesn’t basically result in a shorthand language, because I engage with each production anew. Barrie Kosky in particular is constantly inventing new languages for his productions. With him, there is a kind of intuitive and playful agreement for me.

How easy (or challenging) is it to integrate your own artistry with that which is being presented visually and sonically?

When I photograph a production, I try to translate the artistic template into my images as sensitively and accurately as possible. If successful, it does not remain an objective image. My desire is to show the sensitive structure on stage, in its complexity, to capture a moment that, in the best moments, flashes something that escapes the eye. What I mean by “sensitive structure” is this: in an opera performance, very many processes and aspects intertwine and depend on each other. Singers, conductor, orchestra, stage, stage management, props, lighting, costumes, transformations… everything should ‘breathe’ with each other; then a special magic is created, which is very sensitive, and fleeting, because it is in constant movement.

Peter Grimes, Britten, Eric Cutler, Theatre an der Wien, staging, Christoph Loy, stage, performance, classical, opera, Wien, Osterreich, production

Eric Cutler as Peter Grimes in a scene from Theater an der Wien’s staging of Britten’s opera, by director Christoph Loy, 2021. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

What is the role of the voice in your work? Is there one?

The voice in the literal sense, does not really play a role in my work. I listen very carefully to every voice on stage and am touched by what singing people can tell through their voices. However, I tend not to try to show the physical act of singing.

How has your idea of visual expression changed through all the operas you have photographed?

There are productions that reach me particularly deeply and teams that expand my perspective and visual approach through their work – this doesn’t necessarily have to do with a specific work, although there have been incisive experiences in this regard as well.

I began my path in opera with Achim Freyer. He is a strongly image-based artist from whom I have learned a great deal and may still learn. He has been very supportive of my particular preference for compositions of people in space and the amplification of content that comes with it.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Bavarian State Opera, Bluthaus, staging, Claus Guth, Vera-Lotte Boecker, staging, lighting, design, photography, opera, Monika Rittershaus, Bo Skovus

Bo Skovhus (L), Vera-Lotte Boecker (R). A scene from Bayerische Staatsoper’s Bluthaus, by Georg Friedrich Haas, staging by Claus Guth; 2022. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Which productions have been noteworthy for you?

A work by Romeo Castellucci this year at the festival in Aix en Provence, Résurrection by Gustav Mahler, particularly struck me and once again stimulated me to think anew about what photography in the theatre is, and can be, for me. Described in very brief terms, Romeo Castellucci had an artificial mass grave dug at the Stadium de Vitrolles to Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. For me, this ‘theatrical installation’ was of incredible power and utmost relevance in our time. My question was: how can I bear to see this process and how can I translate it pictorially? It was extremely important for me to exchange ideas about this with Romeo Castellucci and his dramaturg Piersandra Di Matteo, and to look for a way to photograph.

The work on Bluthaus at the Bavarian State Opera with Claus Guth and his team, and the conversations with the wonderful leading actress Vera-Lotte Böcker, were significant for me also, because the crass subject matter of the piece was illuminated very sensitively, in all its facets.  It is very nice to experience that a singer feels at ease in the awareness of my view of her during intensive rehearsals.

(ed. – The opera, by Georg Friedrich Haas, details the trauma of sexual abuse within one family; it was staged as part of Bayerische Staatsoper’s inaugural “Ja, Mai” festival in May 2022.)

And: I would like to emphasize the continuous work at the Salzburg Festival – this year with three of “my” most important directors, Christof Loy (who staged Puccini’s Il Trittico), Barrie Kosky (Janáček’s Katja Kabanova) and Romeo Castellucci (a double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartók and De temporum fine comoedia (Play on the End of Time) by Carl Orff) – and three very strong singers: Asmik Grigorian (Trittico), Corinne Winters (Kabanova) and Ausrine Stundyte (Bluebeard/De Temporum).

Right now I’m having a very intense time with the Ring des Nibelungen with Dmitri Tcherniakov in Berlin. The four large pieces, in a very short time, were extremely challenging for all involved. Almost at the same time I photographed Die Walküre in Zürich, directed by Andreas Homoki. Photographing the same work in two completely different interpretations was a great pleasure for me.

Achim Freyer, staging, performance, production, Salzburg Festival, Oedipe, Monika Rittershaus, Christopher Maltman, culture, Osterreich

Christopher Maltman (c) as Oedipe in a scene from the Salzburg Festival staging of Enescu opera, by director Achim Freyer, 2019. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, part of The scene and the unseen (arnoldsche).

How did you choose the images in the book?

The scene and the unseen shows a selection of my favourite images of the productions most important to me. The sequence is purely pictorial, with the directors’ productions following one another because they are related in content and aesthetics. My desire was to celebrate the art form of opera.

As a stage photographer, my job is to translate the fleeting and complex three-dimensionality of a performance into a two-dimensional image. A photograph has its own time. It is through the calculated use of blur or blurring, or the unusual focus on minute details or peripheral events that I try to capture the mystery of a production.

To what extent do you think the public’s understanding of a production (or opera as an art form overall) has been expanded because of your work?

Whether the understanding of the public changes through my work, I cannot estimate – that would be presumptuous. I wish, of course, that I can bring to the spectators and viewers of my pictures the special qualities of opera performances, but whether this succeeds, I can not judge – only the others can do that.

Götterdämmerung, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Ring, Wagner, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, staging, production, Der Ring des Nibelungen, opera, classical, Monika Rittershaus

Andreas Schager as Siegfried in a scene from Staatsoper Unter den Linden staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen: Götterdämmerung, by director Dmitri Tcherniakov; 2022. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Top photo: Markus Brück as Macbeth in a scene from Opernhaus Zurich’s staging of Verdi’s opera, by director Barrie Kosky, 2016. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, part of The scene and the unseen (arnoldsche, 2022).
branches, tree, sky, nature

Essay: The C-Word Is Context (Part 2)

On a recent afternoon, I looked out at the pond outside my office window and noted a pair of geese staring at the sky in confusion. It was 12°C yesterday, their tiny flapping wings suggested, now it’s snowing! This isn’t  normal! The idea – the experience – of “normal” is gone. Whether it was real or a veneer hiding far uglier things, “normal” or our idea of it, has been blown apart. What we did in some version of then, and who we are in an ever-evolving sense of now, don’t mix or even intermingle, despite the ephemeral details  indicating otherwise. Thus does the practice of letting go – of the old, the familiar, the “normal” – ascend in conversation yet be ignored in practice; old markers of an old life, like jangling charms on a bracelet, make the right sounds, but play the melody roughly, too slow, out of tune. Nothing can be as it was, but still, we long for the return of that which we knew, or thought we knew, and thought we wanted to continue forever, and so we wait, like Puccini’s Butterfly, all night, all day, and then all night again, time blurring into self, waiting, hoping, looking for signs to materialize, in some sentimental, macaroon-coloured reverie of hope, lowering masks and taking a deep breath, eyes darting around in the darkness. It was like this and now it’s like this – not normal!

My writing focuses on the intersection of culture, media, and history, with a firm eye on current affairs, which is related to the influence of my other life, as a Professor of Media Studies. As journalists know, what is “current” one day is old the next, or more likely within hours. Constantly trying to keep up with the “new” in news renders one’s concentrated efforts rapidly obsolete, one’s words tired and old, “like too little butter scraped over too much bread,” to quote Tolkien’s world-weary Bilbo. Meaningful conversation is in short supply in such a world, and is now mediated and distributed through digital means. Cues are lost, viscerality is lost; far more valued is short, hot reaction, stoked to keep the engines of commerce turning. Horror is churned out into mere content; images of suffering are rendered war porn pleasing hungry advertisers. There is little I feel qualified to say about this, other than to continue reading, thinking, conversing, in as respectful and curious a manner as possible. This series aims to examine the ways in which individuals and organizations move, or try to move, past the hot reaction and loaded language that turns the wheels of social media and related ad technology; I have no idea if it will have any effect, and have given up hope of such impact, but I write it anyway, mainly because I don’t see this kind of analysis happening elsewhere. There’s a reason for that lack: money. Finance, or its lack, is also the root cause of misunderstandings, snap judgements, and shallow readings of events which deserve more thoughtful analyses within the classical sphere.

In analyzing the varied and deeply-rooted causes of recent Russian artist/artwork cancellation, there has been a growing awareness of the role of flexibility: who can bend, when, how much, to what cost, literal and otherwise. The ideas of “normal” held by audiences and administrations, and the ways in which the classical industry has continued to cling to those notions, veneering themselves in some semblance of it, are revealing, and mostly unflattering. Anxieties over cost, in Dollars and Euros and Pounds, is very real in the post-pandemic (or whatever phase we are currently in) landscape of the performing arts; ignoring it or pretending it is not a motivating factor in current cultural decisions is to ignore perhaps the single most vital element of the industry. The North American performing arts landscape has been immensely altered by the experience of pandemic; an LA Times report (March 24, 2022) lists ten artists who have permanently left the theatre scene in the United States, but judging from social media activity and reactions, one may safely assume there are far more departures from the industry across the continent, with individuals leaving an industry en masse, simply because they cannot energetically (financially, socially, mentally) justify staying. Organizations have, simply put, not been flexible in accommodating needed changes, particularly when it comes to freelancers (a point made with repeated brutal clarity by Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones at his blog). The single biggest factors asking for this flexibility (money and education, and how the two relate) don’t seem to be given any meaningful degree of public scrutiny in any media outlet – the need for healthcare; the need for paid ensembles; the need for early arts education across all sectors; the need for active and consistent outreach; the (great) need for far larger arts budgets; the centrality of culture to community (especially to healing the broken sense of community so exacerbated by corona isolation); the inherent comprehension that culture can and should be a cornerstone of such community and of asking vital questions within those communities – apparently the examination of such elements doesn’t drive clicks, so (I know this from experience) those stories are not being assigned in newsrooms. Editors have to justify their chases and thus their budgets; public institutions in particular (and this applies as much to arts organizations as news outlets) have been pressured, through years of heinous budget cuts, to feel they must compete with commercial interests and outlets. The two should be able to co-exist, with understandings of the roles and functions each fulfills, and yet the worst impulses and influences of one (namely ROI) have largely co-opted the base mandates of the other; thus the chance for real change, and thus real flexibility, dies. The whole tenor of contemporary conversation – around current events as much as arts and culture – been largely (if not wholly) reduced to clicks, likes, reaction, firing flames for a guarded, angry intransigence that doesn’t like looking beyond headlines, let alone making time for such examination.

Yet the old “normal” no longer exists, and it seems clear many in the classical industry are aware of this. To paraphrase Hamlet, organizations would rather bear those ills they have, than “to fly to others we know not of.” No one knows what the “new” will bring, but there are small signs that point to those who may have the bravery, and the will, to offer another path. People don’t want to race back to auditoriums; the risks are still real. What was once “normal” within the sphere of live performance experience (especially certain behaviours) is no longer acceptable; what was once taken for granted can no longer be treated as such. That sense of needing to create a new normal is lately reflected, at least sometimes, in programming choices and the will which has clearly been exercised to make them; it has been encouraging to see various organizations acknowledging this need and manifesting it, without worrying too much about sexy clicks. At the very start of the war in late February, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin made a quick if important change to their weekend programme. Contrary to reports in Russia media, Chief Conductor and Music Director Vladimir Jurowski did not (as he had been accused of) “cancel” Tchaikovsky from the entire existing program; he replaced Marche slave (written in 1876 as a paean to Russia’s intercession in the Serbian-Ottoman war) with two works by Ukrainian composer Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-1870), the Ukrainian anthem (1863), and Symphonic Overture No. 1 in D major. The latter work, with its folk-like lines, created an immensely thoughtful frisson alongside the world premiere of Dmitri Smirnov’s “Concerto piccolo” for cello and orchestra, “History of Russia in 4 anthems” (2001), a sarcastic and brilliant deconstruction of Russian machismo within the paradigm of shifting musical-political identities. Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D minor (1874) followed, its nods to Ukrainian folk melody so apparent in its final movement, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (1888) to close; its militaristic lines sounded a snide bravado most poignantly in a final movement that spoke as equally to specific tragedy as to the broader circumstances which birthed it. None of this was on any social media channels – such thoughtfulness does not play well within the strictures dictated by such platforms, nor publishers – though it was thankfully broadcast (and accessible for a month thereafter) on the public radio channel Deutschlandfunk Kultur.

Other orchestras have followed suit. The Berlin Philharmonic was featured on both their own dedicated platform (its Digital Concert Hall) and that of German national broadcaster RBB for a benefit concert held recently at Schloss Bellevue. The concert was one of many recent (and rapidly-organized) charity initiatives done in partnership with ARD, an integrated organizations comprised of Germany’s public-service broadcasters. The Berlin Phil’s programme featured two works by Valentyn Sllvestrov (b. 1937), who fled his native Kyiv earlier this month, thanks to the help of Ukrainian conductor Vitaly Alekseenok and Russian pianist Yuri Lyubimov. Silvestrov’s music is also featured in a beautiful new release by violinist Daniel Hope with Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, Music For Ukraine (Deutsche Grammophon) which, along with works by Silvestrov, includes music by Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020) and Jan Freidlin (b. 1944). All proceeds from the album’s sales will go to Aktion Deutschland Hilft, a non-profit organization working to deliver emergency aid to those affected by the war. If Silvestrov’s music known only to those with specialized knowledge of the contemporary compositional scene in Europe prior to February 24th, it is now being hoisted into something approaching mainstream awareness. Lithuanian Opera and The Metropolitan Opera both performed Silvestrov works as part of hastily-organized charity initiatives, though his Symphony No. 4 was presented by the London Philharmonic Orchestra last month as part of a regular season concert, albeit in an altered programme that impressively demonstrated the needed flexibility in accordance with the times. Some might posit that the work of the so-called “most famous living Ukrainian composer” has become something of a go-to for organizations looking to telegraph concern for current events; perhaps one ought not to question sincerity in such cases, these are worthy causes after all, and attract wide audiences and much-needed funds. But the composer himself expressed frustration at the race to embrace his work at this particular juncture, telling Professor of Musicology Peter Schmerz “that this misfortune needed to happen for them to begin playing my music. […] Does music not have any value in and of itself without any kind of war?” (New York Times, March 30, 2022)

It is a question worth pondering, especially as questions around flexibility and, related to that, responsibility swirl in the classical community. Will audiences get the opportunity to hear the works of Silvestrov, Skoryk, and Verbytsky as part of regular programming? And will organizations place them beside Russian works, or have them be played by Russian artists? Should they? Will some kind of statement be required? Conductor Ariane Matiakh, who has described herself as “a Frenchwoman with Ukrainian roots which are bleeding at the moment”, told Radio France earlier this month that she “condemn(s) the artists who have always seemed close to power” in Russia but, like others in her profession, made a distinction between the artists cozy with power, and those others who are “not able to take a stand.” Similarly, The Association of British Orchestras (ABO) released a statement in early March in which they stated that “no Russian artist should be compelled to make such a public statement, when the consequence of doing so would be that the lives, liberty and livelihoods of themselves and members of their family in Russia are endangered. We will also look after those of our staff and musicians who are personally impacted by the invasion of Ukraine.” Here the question is one of perception, of proportional concern, of turning away from the urge toward simplistic false equivalency, the problematic nature of which I outlined in Part 1 of this series). To put it plainly: there is no equivalency between artists suffering in Russia and those (artists or not) suffering in Ukraine. It’s upsetting to see such moral trafficking made quotidian, within such insulting and reductive equivalencies, when the context exists for a far deeper and more compassionate response; concern-trolling and moral policing plug up what should be open if extremely difficult discussions that must be had, in the classical world and elsewhere. It is equally vital to understand the ways in which the classical industry has, or is, or could be responding, most specifically within the context of post-pandemic recovery, with a firm awareness of the economics, inside the industry, and outside of it, via the media who cover it with less and less depth of detail and comprehension. Controversy, or the mere whiff of it, plays well to the machinery of algorithms and ad technology; a headline that uses triggering keywords or phrases (“cancel culture”, “boycott”, “ban”, “freedom”) is likely to please publishers (and advertisers) far more than one that might better represent its true content (or indeed, the actual, far more complex story). Context is often the thing left behind under duress of analytical realities (time on page, clicks, other forms of engagement metrics) but such contemporary publishing realities leave a gaping hole in precisely the spot where most cultural workers (artists, writers, composers, academics) like to think they live: the world of thinking. For every cancellation, there is another story (or more); for every decision veneered by brand management, there is another one deserving of attention. In a searingly honest op-ed (published 1 April 2022), Opera Wire Managing Editor Polina Lyapustina wrestles with her own background, the notion of supposed “cancellation” and the ways in which the recent flexibility shown by artists (Jurowski included) has proven important: “The Great Russian culture was supposed to educate (its own people in particular). Stop using it to mask problems, and excuse crimes. Stop.”

If one approaches the study of a score and only looks at its most superficial elements – sans history, sans connection to other works, sans past recordings or artists’ performances – one misses a great deal; perhaps a similarly careful and contextualized media literacy needs to be at play, particularly within the classical music realm. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve suggested that a basic education in the realities of contemporary publishing (especially within the digital realm) is required for those in the classical world – just as writers in this realm need to be aware of the particulars of music, the awareness and knowledge should be reciprocal – but this may be my most direct appeal. Never has context been more important to so many, and so many with or needing money especially. Making a snap judgement, and creating a confirmation bias around that judgement, of there existing an overarching “cancellation” of Russian culture based on cherry-picked headlines (ones which are algorithmically pushed up to prominence in Google searches) ignore immense and very important contextual roots: limited repertoire because of funding; management timidity; administrative ignorance of repertoire; audience skittishness; audience ignorance (remember, they are as culpable to those hot-reaction headlines as anyone); shifting infection numbers; optics to please a moneyed and influential donor base; ever-widening educational gaps; marketing to attract a longed-for young audience (who are largely victims of that educational gap, natch). To not acknowledge these factors and investigate them further, but instead choose a reductive understanding that plays into a mythologized (and highly politicized) clash of civilizations seems reductive when placed against the thoughtful approach which the classical industry tends to pride itself on cultivating. One cannot look at such incidents in isolation but as part of a much wider, and rapidly shifting ecosystem with innate ties to money, or lack thereof. The fashionable “reimagining” terminology has only been applied in some cases, and with utter timidity, and not seen or experienced at this moment with any level of reliable consistency that would indicate long-term commitment to change.

Yet, as with the RSB decision in February, motions toward meaningful dialogues exist, however minutely. Those motions are dependent on leadership demonstrating the kind of mature resolve which the situation requires – a resolve to open dialogues (however uncomfortable), to dare returned tickets (certainly a great risk, given the times), to court angry social media reaction (which perhaps means taking a step or two back from it – yes really; no, I’m not naive). The flexibility with which certain programming changes have been (and continue to be made) in incremental ways suggests an innate awareness of the importance of this flexibility in leading an embrace of a new normal, and the willpower to implement it. The ABO released a link to a spreadsheet listing six pieces by Ukrainian composers, their respective orchestrations, and their respective publishers, as well as a far more comprehensive link to Lviv National Opera featuring a far larger range of Ukrainian composers, and related works, performances, and useful information. Facebook groups, similarly, have been active in providing links and downloads to Ukrainian works. Some organizations are actualizing their intentions beyond charity initiatives. Writing at American Orchestras’ website recently, London Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director Elena Dubinets referenced the need for programmatic flexibility and active engagement with new and/or unfamiliar repertoire. In acknowledging her personal history (Dubinets’ husband is Ukrainian, she is a self-described “Jew from Moscow”), Dubinets reflected on how cultural connections (in both macro and micro senses) can (or should) play out within artistic realms. The complicated, all-umbrella term “Russian” music was given particular attention, with Dubinets repeatedly recognizing the contributions of Ukrainian artists to past and present classical life, and observing that the LPO’s inclusion of Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 4 in its programme last month was a symbol that “sooner rather than later, Ukrainian music will become an essential part of the symphonic repertoire.” Let’s hope these are not hollow words and empty gestures; as she notes, “Ukrainian music is less known than it ought to be”, due in part to intransigence, nervousness, and pushback by organizations who are, more than ever, risk-averse to programming new and unknown works.

This is where the Instagrammification of classical music niggles; “fun” content is favoured over meaningful items that might dare less engagement. I have sat through numerous “day in the life of” Instagram Stories released by various houses and orchestras over the course of the past four weeks; there’s nothing inherently wrong with such things, but the timing, and the content (that hideous word) is wretched. Oh, I kept thinking looking out the window at the confused geese, for an ounce of something intelligent and good, something that does not so obviously play to shallow algorithms. It’s not that I believe the classical industry is somehow “better” than entertainment outlets that utilize such strategies, but I do believe it is different, and thus it has an entirely different set of demands and realities. The willingness to embrace meaningful change might, particularly at this moment, convey a real form of real commitment to dialogue and respect (the very words Bayerische Staatsoper loftily hashtagged in their own posts at the start of the war in late February), yet the lack of commitment to such realization renders these motions as little more than optically-pleasing marketing, of lulling audiences into some perceived form of “safe” that does naught but museumify what should be a living, breathing, vital entity, with shiny, Instastory wrapping.  Arts organisations need to ask who they are serving , and more pointedly, to what end. The 2022-2023 seasons of many orchestras and opera houses have been announced, and so far, there is little if any embrace of risk, or display of meaningful change. If we are to ‘carry on’ in whatever fashion we can now, two years into Covid and amidst war, then let’s not “carry on” as per usual; it behoves every leader at every level to make a concerted effort which entails not merely the replication of an old normal but the embrace (and active cultivation) of new ones. This won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, because there can’t be, and yes, it is difficult, and indeed very risky, especially in an era where (as I also wrote) audiences are proving very slow to return, where every ticket return and disgruntled subscriber is magnified one-hundred-fold. Better not to risk even one angry letter or one pair of returned tickets, all these season brochures whisper (or sometimes shout), better to stick to the tried and the true. Carefully telegraphing We Really Care™ to audiences has priority; real change, or committing to it, is much further down the list.

I am willing to court accusations of cynicism – that would hardly be new – but I am not willing to let context and its inherent need at this juncture evaporate, not when arts and media, together, and the people who work in both, can do more. Alas, if only they were allowed to. Organizations who believe they are doing precisely what they think audiences want by doing the safe thing are only proving how little they actually know about those audiences, and how little they care about the tenor of the times; they are also unwittingly telling me how adverse they are not only to risk but, ultimately, to any form of meaningful change which the practice of their art might inspire. Those who bat around ugly phrases and espouse the beliefs inherent to them (i.e. “cancel culture”) reveal how little commitment exists to needed change, how little commitment exists toward the cultivation of context, how much attachment there is to an old idea of “normal.” That “normal”, and our perceptions of it – our attachment to it,  as audiences, as artists, as administrators, as writers, as thinkers, as lovers of culture – must be set alight. At their final stop on a recent European tour, the RSB performed a piece by Valentyn Silvestrov, “Abschiedsserenade” (2003), a hymn to endings, a prayer for beginnings. The two-movement work, written just after the passing of Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits (1945-2002), was not part of the orchestra’s formal Budapest programme but was added on and performed with gentle grace and delicacy. With its long lines and lingering tones, the work reminds one of the cyclical nature we so often take for granted. Music in 2022 can, must, be more, for everyone; to quote poet E. E. Cummings, “where everything’s nothing —arise,my soul;and sing”.

Lisette Oropesa: “Context Is Everything As A Singer”

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Photo: Jason Homa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s power tied to male gaze. 

Yes, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

soprano singer vocal opera Lisette Oropesa stage performance Guth Liceu Barcelona Baroque Handel Gianluca Margheri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pastiche of authenticity…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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