Since our last conversation in early 2021, bass baritone Christian Immler has been busy. As was the case with many artists, the bass baritone’s schedule changed dramatically as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns; his approach to music, as you’ll read in our recent conversation below, didn’t change but intensified and expanded, particularly within the realms of score study, synergy with colleagues, and active public engagement.
In December 2022 Immler performed with the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov in the lauded world premiere of Prager Symphony, Lyric Fragments after Franz Kafka (Symphony No. 4) by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert. Based directly on the work of Franz Kafka (including his letters, short stories, novels, and fragments from his notebooks) the work is an immense, daring exploration of the lyric symphonic form, with scoring for orchestra and two voices (bass baritone and mezzo), spread over twelve sections. As the composer told Bachtrack just prior to the premiere, the work is “a psychological landscape, where two people tell us something about ourselves: a story of life from the very beginning to the end, plus all human circumstances you can imagine: being witty, the pain of violence, happiness, and so on.” Prager Symphony will be presented again later this year, with Bychkov and Immler – in June, with the Concertgebouw and Gewandhaus respectively, and the UK premiere happening in November with the BBC Symphony.
Along with learning and performing the Glanert work, the bass baritone also released the album Das heiße Herz (Alpha Classics) with pianist Andreas Frese, featuring the music of Robert Schumann and contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann. Released in mid-2022, the work features songs from Schumann’s 1849 cycle Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’ (text by Goethe) as well as the composer’s 1850 cycle ‘6 Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem’; the world-premiere recording of Widmann’s Heisse Herz (The Burning Heart) comprises the album’s second half, with Immler conveying a stunning (and stunningly controlled) level of musicality, sometimes utilizing sprechstimme to exude the emotional intensity Widmann’s writing necessitates. A review in Opera News early this year (which singled the album out for its monthly Critics Choice designation) noted the degree to which Immler “shows a performance artist’s mastery of the work’s considerable demands, as does the fearless (pianist) Frese, who thunders, tremolos and occasionally slams the keyboard or strums the inside, in addition to playing with great tenderness when called upon.”
Our recent conversation began by my asking Immler about his fascinating forthcoming release (on Alpha Classics) of virtually unknown music by Wilhelm Grosz (1984-1939) and Robert Gund (also spelled Gound; 1865-1927), all set to texts by a range of celebrated European writers, including Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842). The music project sees Immler reunite with pianist Helmut Deutsch, with whom he previously collaborated on a gorgeous 2021 album showcasing the largely unknown music of Hans Gál. The thought of Immler and the pianist reuniting for a project featuring music few know well (or are aware of at all) is a needed bit of hope amidst a still-difficult classical environment.
Immler is just embarking on an extensive Northern European tour, performing the work of another composer whose works he knows well; St. Matthew Passion is being presented by famed Bach conductor Masato Suzuki and the Netherlands Bach Society in twelve different locales between March 25th and April 8th. Before the tour began Immler took time to offer thoughts on everything from covid-related cancellations to the earthy writing of both Bach and contemporary composers. Immler is always inspiring to speak with, whether he’s discussing the finer points of scores, sharing the realities of singing works of rarely-heard composers, or how the simple act of breathing informs and influences musicianship; our recent midwinter exchange was, quite simply, a joy.
Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman
How’s your work with Helmut Deutsch coming along?
It’s great! We both love this repertoire. There are cases where something will seem like a good idea and then you work with someone, in a duo, and it’s one person pulling the other – but not with Helmut, not at all. We both pull in one direction. With this repertoire, it is really a total discovery. I’m not unused to reading through unfamiliar repertoire but this time there is the added thrill of manuscripts – that’s all there is – so we had to transfer them into Sibelius, all these songs composed as lieder. We did a test run for an audience of around ten people, and had to preface it with, “this is most likely the very first performance of this song cycle!”
What has your process been so far?
Helmut has been cursing me – playfully – for introducing him to this repertoire. The Grosz is very difficult to play; there are so many things are happening at the same time in the piano lines, and he says he needs a few more fingers. Nobody realizes how difficult it is, again, because this repertoire is so unknown. We don’t talk very much, a couple of times we verbalize what we want but the rest is push-pull, and listening.
Listening seems vital, whether it’s for a duo project or for larger performances, like Glanert’s Prager Symphony.
A lot of people can listen if they don’t do anything else, but if you have to do your work, playing and singing, and listen at the same time – that’s a special skill set, because you need to do what you do, and intrinsically listen to the other person at the same time. Helmut knows the text, and I know his piano part very well; sometimes I’ll look more down to what he’s doing and not only to my singer’s part. You have to process a lot at the same time. Also, we need to breathe – everybody knows that – but you wouldn’t believe how many conductors ultimately have no idea what that means; Semyon does. He and Helmut both use their breath as a means of expressivity, and it makes all the difference. When they intuitively run out of breath, they renew themselves. So it’s natural, we both do it. If you have well-written repertoire that breath comes very naturally anyway, but if it’s mediocre writing, and the phrases are really long, you think, “okay, I have to take an odd breath here” but it doesn’t usually happen with good composers.
The last known photograph of Franz Kafka, most likely taken in 1923. Source: Klaus Wagenbach Archiv, Berlin.
That synergy is interesting given your recent projects use texts by authors who are long dead and/or did not write specifically for singers.
It is known that Kafka, although he did not have an aversion to music, did not want some of his texts set to music..
… and yet!
… yes, Max Brod didn’t quite comply there! He didn’t burn the papers Kafka had written after his death. Glanert and Widmann have both said that at a certain point, they have to let their work go. Both are very experienced, so it means at one point they realize it’s no longer controlled by them, and they accept performers might have a slightly different viewpoint or approach, and I think there is a wisdom in this. They’re both great at letting things go. Glanert was present during rehearsals with the Czech Phil and took notes, and when there were moments of difficulty, instruments groups were too soft or loud or whatever, he, without running to the stage and making a fuss, would take notes, and Semyon would come and they’d communicate about it. The process was super-fluid in terms of it being a true work-in-progress situation. We didn’t have many rehearsals of that, either.
The subsequent performances of it this year may have more rehearsals, then?
I have a huge advantage now because I know the piece, but for orchestras, it’s different. Mind you, those other orchestras – the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Leipzig Gewandhaus – are super-orchestras, even with their different approaches. And I have to say also: the Czech Phil is stunning, just… top.
To what extent do you think these songs, and Kafka’s texts, have acquired a new relevance?
It’s funny, that work, as well as the songs I’m doing with Helmut and the theme of my doctoral research, it’s all on work done roughly 100 years ago – yet these poems, at this very moment, in my opinion, have an incredible modernity and relevance. You read some of them, and … well, so I read The Guardian in the mornings, and you see these terrible things about the war in Ukraine, and you see these works, and they resonate as a part of our time, right now.
How does this work and the Widmann speak to that time? And how much do you think listening as a result of that time changed?
Both Widmann and Glanert have a lot of experience in the operatic field and a high level of awareness. They won’t waste opportunities in sound; if they want a big turmoil they know how to create it, and likewise they can create the absence of sound and the power of pauses and stillness. They totally understand – it’s quite unsettling in the Glanert, you think, holy! You could hear a needle drop. It only happens if the ear is preconditioned in the writing, and both of them can do this very well.
For me, and so many who experienced an unprecedented level of isolation and loneliness, and a lack of outside distraction if you will, there was a total feeling of insecurity of what is going to happen. Nobody knew. I find in a lot in these poems, especially in the Kafka texts, there is a sense of basically trying to come out of that situation by saying, “Okay, let’s state we are lonely, and the only way we can kind of overcome this is by stating it first of all and being aware of it, and then sticking together.” This first Kafka text, if you read it, it’s so strong, it states: we are lonely yet we are interconnected by a network of invisible threads, and it’s bad enough if they loosen, but it’s terrible if one of them falls. That, to a certain degree, is what we all experienced in early 2020.
But somehow there is a hope through humanity, and that sounds grand, but these songs don’t leave you feeling dark, they leave you with a sense of… hope is not enough… but that there’s a chance for humanity. And it’s an important balance to what I read in the newspaper.
That seems more rooted in reality.
Yes and I do like that these composers don’t go into the religious sphere or some form of theism, or into any kind of metaphysical sphere at all – everything stays deeply human, earthy and rooted, and thus very approachable. The subtext of them is: you don’t have to be a believer to come out of this darkness.
That’s exactly where they reminded me of Bach, which is perhaps odd…
It’s not odd!
Bach is associated with deep religiosity, but in St. Matthew Passion, for instance, the writing is blood-and-guts human, and it’s the embrace of that messiness which opens the door to the divine. The line between Bach and these modern works is not that long, is it?
It really isn’t It’s funny, I was standing in the Liszt Academy in Budapest recently – which is a total dream building, by the way – I was in a corridor and remembered being there one-and-a-half years ago, being tested with the orchestra, and at 5 in the afternoon the performance was cancelled; the entire bass section had covid. It was like a sudden rain-shower but you don’t know what to do; we are not programmed as artists to know what to do. When I get up on a performance day I am geared to that one thing in the evening when I am meant to deliver. It’s a lot of energy… this very earthy, a very sharply human experience…
How has that time influenced you in terms of singing both contemporary music like Widmann and Baroque?
In terms of the Widmann, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever learned, and if you don’t hear that I take it as a compliment. The scoring is very detailed! He is a total musician; he wants to define it as well as possible, but then you have to have it in your system. The actual level of preparation was intense; there is so much information coming your way, you can’t ignore it, and say, “Oh I feel it this way” – that isn’t possible. You have to prepare it to that level of detail and then know it subconsciously. It was an incredible amount of preparation, apart from pitching and rhythm, and the extended vocal techniques; he would write things in the direction like, ‘Dangerously Through Your Teeth’ or ‘Psychedelically Sung’ for certain passages, but it always makes sense. And, this may sound banal, but it could be Widmann or Monteverdi or Bach or Glanert, but look at it and I’ll think, “This is just top-class writing!”
Do you think preparing for something like the Widmann works would have been different in 2019?
I would say no …
So the pandemic didn’t change your approach that much… ?
It changed how people got together, via Zoom or not at all. The loneliness of preparation, overall, was strong for everything. Just after musicians here were allowed to come together again I did the Beethoven/Leonore with Rene Jacob, it was just a piano rehearsal with the cast, and everybody started crying. It was such a release of… like, you can practice and vocalize, but it’s a profession which has to be done in community, and with a third ingredient in this: the public. The feeling of being together was unbelievable. For this experience we were grateful to have that return, to know we weren’t alone.
So yes, I stayed faithful to preparing well and being detailed, but, like the first time I sang the St. Matthew Passion, you come out of the pandemic experience a different person, obviously. It changes your whole perception of music and life. You can prepare the piece but the effect it leaves when you present it live… you cannot prepare for that.
Time, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote in the libretto of Die Rosenkavalier, is a strange thing. It is an observation perhaps most applicable to the world of opera, an industry which continues to endure its fair share of slow-downs, speed-ups, and stand-stills since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. It’s on; it’s off; it’s on; people are sick, the show must go on; it’s half-on, it’s half-off; it’s reduced, it’s streamed; it’s full capacity but “gosh, where is the audience?” is combined with “why aren’t we moving tickets when we made such cool instagram videos?” and “let’s invite some influencers because they’ll bring the sexy young audience we really want!” Questions, queries, and marketing tactics aside, it is risk which is arguably foremost in audience minds: the risk of attending, but also the risk of experiencing something new, or something familiar, but in new ways. Literal risk may well scare some off (or simultaneously attract others), but figurative risk – creative risk – has the power to tempt long-time audiences back in the house, and bring a much-coveted demographic: newcomers. This positive outcome of risk calculation is one some houses are willing to dare, especially as a long, challenging winter draws closer.
Just how the element of risk manifests now is worth considering, especially given the bundles of new works being presented as part of the 2022-2023 season across various houses in North America and Europe. The Royal Opera is presenting a new opera by Oliver Leith about rock singer Kurt Cobain next month, and its entire run is already sold out. Some works, especially those with less of a direct reference to mainstream popular culture, may not be as much in the public consciousness (yet), but do have existing audiences, and do possess the kind of appeal which expands a work’s fanbase, especially to literature and theatre lovers. Case in point: Medea, by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), opens The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-2023 season on September 27th. The 1797 opera is most famous, or at least has a fair measure of fame among opera aficionados, for its live recording featuring conductor Tullio Serafin and soprano Maria Callas from 1957. It has never been presented in The Met’s history – not for lack of trying; in an essay at The Met’s website, Associate Editor Jonathan Minnick details former General Manager Rudolf Bing’s efforts to bring the opera, and Callas, to New York in the 1960s. The Met may well be hoping to make its own kind of history with the new production, directed by David McVicar and featuring Sondra Radvanovsky in the lead. A soprano known for her passionate work with bel canto roles (including Donizetti’s Three Queens – Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux), Medea offers a very different set of shoes indeed, vocally and musically, though it may well be somewhat familiar territory for the level of dramatic intensity it demands. Radvanovsky will be joined by tenor Matthew Polenzani as the faithless Giasone, Janai Brugger as Glauce, Ekaterina Gubanova as Neris, and Michele Pertusi as Creonte. Historically, the Euripidean tragedy (431 BC) has been adapted for stage, television, and film, and has been an object of considerable study with relation to its themes of betrayal, obsession, family, feminism, and murder – and rather interestingly, the work itself (the opera as much as the ancient Greek play) has a keen relationship to time, and the ways in which it speeds up, and/or slows down, at pivotal moments in one woman’s life. Cherubini’s score masterfully captures the drama inherent in such temporal shifts, using a deft combination of voices, strings, and woodwinds, as well as hectic passages and highly considered silences, to bring listeners into Medea’s inner world; it is a world where time, its passing, and all that implies, stretches, stops, and twists amidst a tumult of conflicting emotions. Beethoven, who was a fan, called Cherubini “Europe’s foremost dramatic composer”
An 1898 poster for Euripides’ Medée from Théâtre de la Renaissance, Paris. Artwork by Alphonse Mucha.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi, who leads Medea performances at The Met, has been studying the score for well over a year. The drama of Cherubini’s Medea, as he explains in our chat below, is sewn within Cherubini’s orchestration and is a full partner with the vocal writing. Rizzi and I last spoke in September 2019, as the Italian conductor prepared to open the Canadian Opera Company’s 2019-2020 season with Turandot, an opera he knows so well, he has (like other Puccini operas) conducted it from memory. Medea, of course, is a different thing as much for him as for the cast, including Radvanovsky, with whom he has previously worked. Originally written and presented in French and subsequently translated into German and Italian (frequently; The Met is using the 1909 Italian translation by writer Carlo Zangarini), Cherubini’s version of the mythological vengeance story touches on a myriad of musical styles without entirely conforming to any of them: it isn’t Classical; it isn’t Romantic; it has elements of both. Medea is notable for not only its ferocious lead but for the unique musical language it utilizes to convey drama.
As Rizzi explains in our exchange, the orchestration of Medea is a key factor in conveying that drama. Getting the balance just right demands things you might expect, but multiplied several times over: patience; study; discussion; rehearsals; edits; more edits. The qualities needed for such responsibility – a passionate involvement and a forensic attention to detail – are ones Rizzi has meticulously developed across multiple projects, not least of which has been his work as Artistic Director of Opera Rara. With its mission on the restoration, recording, and performance of lost 19th and early 20th century works, the group not only gives an opportunity for opera history to be perceived and understood in broader ways, but allows for a far richer contextualizing of the “new” and “old” labels as applied to it, particularly within the realm of performance practices. One of their most celebrated released in recent memory was Ermonela Jaho’s immense Anima Rara from 2020, which beautifully showcased little-known verismo arias, and won the vocal category at the 2021 International Classical Music Awards. Opera Rara’s most recent recording is the one-act opera Zingari by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), out 23 September via Warner Music. Based on a poem by Pushkin from 1827, Zingari premiered in London in 1912 to great success, although Leoncavallo made extensive cuts and revisions to the work throughout its various revivals in Europe and North America. Rizzi noted during a recent Opera Rara release event that Zingari and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo’s famous 1892 work) share some structural differences, but Zingari, which Leoncavallo started writing in the early 1900s, is truly a thing apart, something the new recording emphasizes. He leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with palpable verve, carefully colouring its gloriously rich passages with a warmth of tone and precision in phrasing.
The recording is a symbol of the extent to which opera has shaped Rizzi’s career, as someone who has led rarities by a range of composers (including Giordano, Cimarosa, Bellini, Donizetti, Pizzetti, and Montemezzi) alongside well-loved works by Puccini and Verdi. Rizzi has served as Welsh National Opera’s Music Director twice (1992 to 2001, and 2004 to 2008) and is its Conductor Laureate; he regularly appears on the podiums of Teatro alla Scala Milan, Opera de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Den Norske Opera and Ballet (Oslo), and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has led over 200 performances. This coming season sees him conduct two more works at famed the NYC house – revivals of Puccini’s Tosca (starting 4 October), and Verdi’s Don Carlo (starting 3 November), before moving on to Paris, where he will lead works by Verdi (Il trovatore) and Gounod (Romeo et Juliet), and, in May, give an Opera Rara performance of Donizetti’s 1828 opera L’esule di Roma (The Exile From Rome) at London’s Cadogan Hall with the Britten Sinfonia. Rizzi and I spoke just prior to the release of Zingari, and, more immediately, the morning of a recent Medea rehearsal – about new works, old works, and the need to embrace risk, now more than ever.
What was the process for recording Zingari amidst pandemic?
We did it in December 2021, at the end of the serious lockdown but still the world was mostly wearing masks and distancing. I’ve since done Il proscritto by Saverio Mercadante with Opera Rara; which we did in June. That was much easier, but still, some got covid, thankfully none in the cast, and here in New York now we are rehearsing with masks. Some of the singers are allowed not to wear the masks for stage rehearsals – some do, some don’t – but the orchestra is all with masks.
While things are still so uncertain in the opera world, The Met’s decision to open their season with Medea seems unique.
It’s a situation I’ve never been in. Nobody has ever done it at The Met – nobody! So for the orchestra, chorus, me, singers, production, everybody, it’s a new discovery – even though this opera is very well known, particularly for the Callas phenomenon – it’s like there is a vacuum to fill, in a certain way. I sent some corrections to the Met Opera Library for the orchestra parts, something I have never had happen in opera before – it’s a discovery for everybody. Saturday we did it for the first time with the singers, which was great – I discovered a couple things I wanted to modify in the orchestra, and so.
This is a good thing and also a great responsibility – because in a way, there is the freedom to do things, but then again, in this case there is this recording, this Callas thing, and of course many people will have only heard that, so “oh this is Medea ” – well, actually no, this is Medea as she did it. Callas was Callas; now it’s 50 years later, and there is all this sense of anticipation and responsibility. It’s a big responsibility. I have to let the score speak to me, and in this particular opera it’s been very different from the others because his is a language, Cherubini’s, that is not very easy to classify. When you speak about Rossini, there is a certain way of writing to the voices with the support of the orchestra that you can identify – the same is true when you speak of Puccini or Verdi; if you think about an Traviata, okay, you can remember the Brindisi, the aria of the First Act, the duet in the Second Act. But here, in Medea of course there are those big arias and duets, but actually there is also a great interconnection in the drama between the voices and the orchestra. The orchestra is never a mere companion beside the voice, but a full partner. The orchestra players were talking about this recently – they feel in the middle of the drama with this opera. If there is a dramatic moment or a particular emotion a composer wants to express, of course it’s in the singing but with Medea it’s also fully in the orchestra.
There are some moments which I think are very clever; the character spends half ot the performance trying to get what she wants – to get revenge, of course – but she also wants to see her children. So there’s the line of Medea and the first violin, which is expressive of the latter, but if you look at the viola part, there’s something much more dark in it. When she says, “One day more” – the drama is in the scoring of the orchestra – Medea is, so to speak, in the orchestra. And I think that’s very interesting, because it allows the decisions you make with the orchestra and singers to be much more unified. For me that’s rewarding.
Cherubini’s work sonically anticipates much future work…
That is a huge question! The translation, per se, is not for me the most difficult thing, but there is some quirkiness to it. It’s for the simple reason that in Italian, always, basically, the accent is on the penultimate syllable, and in French the accent is on the last syllable. We do the (sung, in this version) Italian recitatives in this production. Now, one could say, “Why don’t you do them spoken in French?” – and sure, we could, but it’s the Italian version, and the recitatives are where the drama happens. The drama is never in an aria alone – what happened before and what happens after matter as much. The recitatives enhance the drama, beginning to end. Medea is so dramatic in her minimalism. She doesn’t come in flaming on a dragon – there is just a simple sound and simple chord: “where is the traitor?” It’s amazing, this moment, it’s so anti-operatic in a way, but totally, utterly dramatic. So taking the lead from what Cherubini wrote in these passages, I think, personally, that these recitative sections hold the drama of the piece; it all hangs on how those are performed.
You’re right regarding the translation – another opera I’m doing here later, Don Carlo, has the French version and Italian version – and there are differences in the ways that text is approached although written by the same composer. I grew up with Don Carlo in Italian, it’s what I’ve heard forever. When I did it in French at one point, or rather at certain points, things made more sense. The Italian (version) again, is not terrible – but in French, you can hear the meaning. We can discuss until the cows come home if we should do this only in French now, but I believe we can do both.
So the translation isn’t so central as to change the core meaning?
Sort of. What I’ve noticed, in studying both the French text and the Italian text, is yes, there are some differences. Sometimes you get translations of operas where, in the original language a character says one thing, and that comes out totally another thing in the translation – that is not the case with this opera! I think sometimes the (textual) quirks are there because (Carlo) Zangarini, as an Italian, was trying to keep the French line, the French text. The important thing to remember is that composers tend to think of certain words to give the apex of a phrase, it’s not just a question of translating it straight over. For example, if you take Rodolfo’s famous aria in Bohème, the word “speranza” is important, it’s everything Rodolfo hopes for, it’s why it’s a top C right there – but if you translate that word into another language, it changes the way everything lands. For Cherubini the drama isn’t on one note; the technical writing is less involving this apex which was common to Romantic aria writing, and is more focused around the development of the aria by the different orchestral sections. It’s instrumentation which brings characters to say certain things, including the moments with Medea and Giasone. You can hear it one way, or in another way, with the voice or with the orchestra, or both, so it’s like circles of relating.
Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Cherubini’s “Medea.” Photo: Paola Kudacki / Met Opera
You have worked with Sondra Radvanovsky a few times, including a lot of work in bel canto repertoire; what’s been your experience now?
I do find working with her so rewarding. The past times we’ve worked together, like in 2017 with Norma among many other performances, she would know those roles in her body, not only in the notes. This isn’t the bel canto she’s used to doing, and as I said before, it’s a discovery for everybody. Yesterday after rehearsal she and I were still discussing and exchanging ideas of how to more clearly project a certain kind of personality at a certain point rather than another kind at other moments – and all this energy comes together at a certain point: through the next rehearsals; with some technical things like portamento; where she goes into chest for a certain phrase, or if it’s more legato, or more a conversational sort of style; all these things are things we constantly discuss. It’s a project that is a work-in-progress, because again, it is the first time everybody has done it. We’d be foolish to come in and say, “This is the way we have to do this” when there are different and better ways.
How do you see Medea fitting within your overall opera oeuvre?
It’s interesting because Medea is something that never happened in my life – well, maybe when I was very young – but this is my fifth new opera in a row this year. It’s been bloody hard work – it’s not just opening the score and doing it! I started with Cendrillon (Massenet), then I did Il Proscritto (Mercadante) then I due Foscari (Verdi), then Rossini’s La gazzetta, and now Medea. For me personally it’s been a period of a lot of study, I can tell you, but also challenging in a positive way, especially after the covid lockdowns. It’s been very welcome. Now I’m happy doing something I’ve done before too. So often people think, “What do conductors do? What do they really do?” And, fine, if you have a good technique you can read and conduct something within three days – but truly, it requires more. Being a conductor requires a real maturation, and only time gives that. You have to know to start studying early – I started on Medea more than a year-and-a-half ago. You think about it; you read; you mark it up; you go away; you come back; it’s been a great period, but it’s been very busy also.
That’s very true. A related silver lining of this era is that we had the time to sit and study these things. Also, it has to be said, that even if everybody did the Zoom performances, the distanced performances, it comes out at the end that nothing can compare to, nothing can overtake the feeling of being at a live performance. That means there is a desire to have new things, to do new things, to not just do the same old things, and not to do them in such a comfortable way as before. We don’t take it for granted – because now we know: nothing is guaranteed anymore. So fine, let’s take it as a positive from the situation, and keep doing things this way, and hope the public will come back and not be fearful, and start to enjoy it again, and abandon one’s self not only to the music but visual art, to dance, to cinema, and so on. It’s why we’re making art.
Top photo: Carlo Rizzi rehearsing Zingari with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, December 2021. Photo: Simon Weir / Opera Rara.
Throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, the month of September heralds the idea of return: to schools and universities; to work projects; to extracurricular events and some form of cultural life in locales where summer festivals are scant if even extant. There is a hunger for routine, perhaps now more than ever, given the added impetus that the notion of “return” carries with it an end to the disruption wrought by years of pandemic. The urgency toward a “return to normal”, however one defines it, feels more tenuous than ever, given a tightening of budgets, of strikes, of continued sacrifice for some, of a winter that threatens cold and expense. Amidst all of this: whither music? Is it now firmly slotted as an extra? As temperatures drop and bills rise, priorities, especially for those on limited incomes, would seem to become plain. How, then, ought live classical culture to respond? How should it be encountered, engaged with, and supported?
Perhaps there is an answer in simple things – things like singing, and most especially singing with others. If the notion of ‘return’ engenders a thirst for community, what better way to slake it? Singing may be off the plate for most, but it need not be; there is no reason to feel daunted by any perceived lack of talent. Choral life in many parts of Europe and the UK is active, evidenced not only in a huge variety of live offerings but in audience response; attending performances of various Passions, it was lovely to note the extent to which respective audiences knew the words of various sections (and sang or hummed along, or mouthed the texts). There are many active choral communities across North America as well (Canada’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale is but one example), some secular, some not. Choral singing is, as practitioners might say, made up of far more than the annual Xmas ritual of Handel’s Messiah. The act of singing together within a confined space was one of the first things unfortunately lost in the pandemic lockdowns of early 2020; it was also one of the things fought hardest over in some places, with certain groups utilizing distancing techniques to try and continue their activities. Togetherness matters; making sounds together, certainly matters, as much an individual as a collective good.
The Merton College Choir is embarking on an American tour next week, one that seems as much about showcasing the talents of its members as serving to remind audiences of the centrality of communal cultural experience. The tour is a good reminder that singing need not be as formal as what the talented troupe present, but can be an act of recognition, of support, of active imagination and empathy. Made up of a rotating group of 30 members taken from Oxford University’s student body (via annual auditions), the choir (who has its own Youtube channel) is dedicated mainly to liturgical works, but also has (as their upcoming tour attests) a history of commissioning and presenting the work of living composers. Merton’s Choral Foundation was established in 2008, and since then, has acquired an international reputation for stellar performances and recordings. Awarded Best Choral Album at the 2020 BBC Music Magazine Awards for their 2019 recording of The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (Delphian) by Bermuda-born composer Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) (a work Gramophone writer Alexandra Coghlan hailed for both its textural as well as meditative qualities) the troupe has also enjoyed collaborations with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Elgar’s The Apostles, 2018), Instruments of Time and Truth (Bach’s St Matthew Passion, 2017) and Oxford Baroque (Bach’s Mass in B minor, 2018). Previous tours include visits to Hong Kong and Singapore, France, Italy, Sweden, and the United States. The upcoming tour to the latter is the first the choir has undertaken since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
With dates in Cambridge, New Haven, New York, and Princeton, the programme is an inspiring mix of new and old works by a range of celebrated composers, including William Byrd (1543-1623), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), Lionel Rogg (1936), Judith Weir (1954), and Nico Muhly (1981), among others. I spoke with Director of Music Benjamin Nicholas recently, and we discussed some timely topics: the choice of touring repertoire; what audiences might glean from the experiences of seeing, and being in, a choir; and what singing means in a post-(or whatever this is)-coronavirus world.
Photo (c) John Cairns
Your American tour is an interesting balance of contemporary and traditional works; why these works, and why include them on a tour?
Well, I think what we’re doing on tour is pretty typical of what we do most of the time. I do try and think about the concert programmes – the art of putting together a programme is a really exciting thing to do. It’s tough to get it right, and I’m aware we’re going to be singing in places that have great choral music already, and so I think it was a question of bringing something with us that might be unique in the sense that one piece is written specifically for us, other contemporary pieces are perhaps not performance so often – so I’m quite keen to put together a programme that contrasts the old with the new, which as I say is pretty typical of our repertoire.
During the university term we sing three services a week in the chapel at Merton and I would say that we include a lot of Renaissance music, obviously some romantic music, and 20th-21st century music, and so the tour programme is an extension of what we do in those services.
Do you program with themes in mind, or is it more instinctual, i.e. “I like how this sounds with that” ?
It’s a bit of both if I’m honest. I have gone for some contrasts, where we put two pieces next to each other. One of those pairings is the Byrd Motet “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth” running straight into Judith Weir’s “Ave Regina caelorum” – one connection is simply that they are in the same key, so it makes for a very neat segue way, but also I think that it’s interesting that William Byrd wrote for Elizabeth I – he was indeed part of the Royal household – and Judith Weir is the current Master of the Queen’s Music, and obviously writes for the greater state occasions in the UK. So that was one thing, to put them together. The Judith Weir piece is also a bit of a personal piece, because it was written for us – it is particularly special. And then there’s the Purcell piece (“Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei”) moving directly into David Lang (“again”) – there’s no great link there, apart from the fact that I felt the contrast after the Purcell would be, hopefully, really arresting for the audience.
The act of communal singing, of this programme in particular, seems especially pregnant with symbolism. Singing was the first thing we lost in the pandemic.
What has the return been like for you and your members?
The very obvious practical change, when we came back to the university after the first lockdown, related to the basic guidance: yes we could sing, but only at a certain distance from one another. Merton Chapel is a good size and we were able to resume singing straight away, but all distanced. There’s no doubt that distancing honed everyone’s listening skills; everyone was so much more attuned, and they knew they had to have amazing antennae – the ears of an elephant – to hear everyone else, to make the performance whole. We did record a CD under those circumstances; it seems mad on one hand, but on the other I think all the work paid off. The choir has moved back together now, and are standing at a normal distance, but their listening skills have been enhanced by the distancing over the course of the pandemic. But whilst the pandemic is fresh in everyone’s minds and people missed being in university and missed touring and did miss singing three times a week in the chapel, I think people have got used to (the old routine) again very quickly; we’re basically back to normal and have been for about a year.
Now it’s been quite a striking difference at the BBC Proms concerts – what I found really staggering as an attendee is to hear all the great choral works in the Royal Albert Hall with hundreds of performers, because that didn’t come back last summer; it has taken much longer for that kind of music-making to resume. For all of us who’ve been at the Proms or heard things on the radio in the last couple weeks, things like Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony or The Dream Of Gerontius and so on, I think that’s been a very powerful reminder of what we lost. But I think when it comes to chamber music – and Merton Choir is, I suppose, the size of a chamber choir – I think we’ve now gotten used to being back together, and one of the great things of working with students is aht they move on pretty quickly. I think as far as they’re concerned we’ve been back to normal for some time, and normal is what they expect now. From my point of view I’ve used it as an opportunity to think about our repertoire a little bit. I hope it’s increasingly diverse, that it’s more interesting; I dropped some pieces which were not that great but which we did because they were in repertoire, so (this pandemic time) has been a chance to rebuild.
The pandemic time has many in classical thinking about that word “rebuild” – why organizations and artists do it ; how they do it; just who they are doing it for. This relates, I think, to the growing awareness around the need for diversity. What’s your feeling?
I completely agree. The interesting thing is that in terms of who we perform for back in the UK, our work is largely about enhancing the liturgy in medieval chapel, so that’s quite different from just being a concert-giving outfit. There are already these parameters in what we’re doing; the liturgy of the day dictates a lot of the music. So that means that there are certain texts that need to be sung and so on. Now, you then have a vast library of music from the last 500 years with the settings of those texts and so on and of course, a lot of the time we’re singing that music, however, we’ve always tried to commission new music at Merton, because it’s a choir of students, and part of the educational process is to introduce them to new music, some written by them or their peers, but other music is written by a cross-section of composers from all over the world. I’ve commissioned Nico Muhly in the US; Dobrinka Tabakova (1980), born in Bulgaria although she’s in London at the moment; Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977), who is Latvian; Kerry Andrew (b. 1978) and Hannah Kendall (b. 1984); and obviously Judith Weir and James Macmillan (1959), both Scottish. The composers come from all over, because I want our repertoire to be as broad as it possibly can. Each of these composers brings a unique musical language and that enhances what we do in the chapel.
In terms of the membership of our choir, we want it to be as representative of the UK as possible, and, in terms of who we are singing for, I want audiences to come along, hear an English choir, and I just want them to experience something of what we do. So (on this tour) I’ve included two American composers, and that was because over the last few years we’ve explored a lot of contemporary composers – Libby Larsen (1950); Stephen Paulus (1949-2014) before he died; Glass (1937), Lang (1957), and Muhly. We recorded an album of American music just before the pandemic which we never had a chance to take to concerts. In a way this is a snapshot of the repertoire we sing, and you know, we hope audiences enjoy such varied kinds of music.
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Photo: Hugh Warwick
A choir seems like a symbol of community, reciprocity, support – things that went missing during the pandemic, and continue to be largely absent. What role do you see for choir membership in a post (or whatever this is) covid world?
The first thing to say is that the act of being in a choir brings people together. That whole thing whereby people have been separated – well, a choir immediately offers a reason for people to come together. Then there is the fact they have come together to make music; the active breathing in sync, the fact they’ve got to respond to one another in terms of pitch within an ensemble, these things make the connections between people all the stronger. So for the people who sing, getting back into a choir is a really important thing.
In this country we’ve found it’s been slow-going – yes, we’re lucky that at the university we’ve not been hugely impacted by that, but I’m aware a lot of the large choruses are down in numbers and it’s taken time for all these things to build back up. I do recognize it hasn’t just gone back straight away, and that people need to be reminded, particularly now, of the benefits of being in a choir and making music together.
It’s like the difference between playing team sports versuss things like skiing, tennis, or swimming; I was a pianist and sometime-band/orchestra member, but the experience of singing St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 2018 was very much a thing apart from any individual experience. Singing is intimate, and singing with others, even more so.
It is exactly that. In terms of musical education I can understand there was a time when one of the conservatoires, the Royal College Of Music, insisted that first-year students be part of a chorus, and the students at the time didn’t understand why they had to do this, but it was, simply, all the skills one can take for granted are so enhanced and developed by being in a choir: pitch, rhythm, placing one’s voice, text, languages…
… awareness of others.
Yes, absolutely – the skills you might learn in general musicianship, you might do them in a class, but go into a choir and you are putting the repertoire study into real practice. So I can only think it’s a really good thing for all musicians to sing in a choir for a bit, and I would say in Merton College Choir we’re essentially a choir of 30 students, some of whom read music as their degree but many are scientists and lawyers and historians…
I love that kind of professional variety in your membership.
I love that too, and I love the fact plenty of people who will not be professional singers have wonderful musical skills regardless of their formal study routes. So we have good pianists, and good horn players singing with us, and as far as I’m concerned, as a director, you need all these ingredients. Yes, you need stellar voices, but you also need a lot of very good musicians, people who just want to enhance those musical skills they happen to have. You need those different elements to make a choir.
Top Photo: The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Photo: Hugh Warwick
One of the most moving episodes in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) occurred in 1960 upon his first visit to the health resort of Gohrisch, a mountainside town located forty kilometres south-east of Dresden, where he had gone to write the music for Lev Armshtam’s film “Five Days, Five Nights”. The String Quartet No. 8 was famously composed instead, the sole piece he wrote outside the Soviet Union, done over three days in mid-July in the green, scenic spot near the River Elbe. Tortured by questions of identity, integrity, history, creativity and the tenuous links therein, having been heavily coerced into joining the Communist Party just prior, Shostakovich dedicated the work to victims of fascism and war, offering a mourning of the past, a dirge for the present, a worried sigh at the future. The composer returned to Gohrisch in summer 1972 following the premiere of his Symphony No. 15, where he visited with conductor Kurt Sanderling. Little could he have known that the site would host a celebrated festival bearing his name, featuring a range of his own works as well as those by his colleagues and contemporaries.
The International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, founded in 2010 with the help of the Staatskapelle Dresden, has been a fount of musical exploration in the decades since its titular composer paid his visits. This year’s edition, which opened on Thursday (30 June), features the music of Shostakovich, of course, as well as that of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), Yuri Povolotsky (b. 1962), and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), who is this year’s recipient of the International Shostakovich Prize. It’s fair to say that there are several spectres hanging over this year’s edition of the festival, but they are encapsulated in the figure of one person who is no longer present, but whose history, with both Shostakovich and Gohrisch, remains vital. Conductor Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year, helped in the formation of the Festival and indeed led the Sächsische Staatskapelle in the concert barn (or the concert marquee) in Gohrisch from 2010 to 2013, and was awarded the third International Shostakovich Prize by the Shostakovich Gohrisch Foundation in 2012. An award-winning album of live festival recordings, released in 2017 (Berlin Classics), features the music of Arvo Pärt (1935), Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), and Shostakovich, including the 1948 song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, op. 79, which was composed following Shostakovich’s denunciation of the Zhdanov Decree; it had to wait until 1955 to receive its premiere performance. Jurowski championed such repressed works, making it something of his life’s mission to uncover and present the pieces which an insidious combination of politics, history, nationalistic fervour, and ideological intransigence forced longtime silence, ignorance, misperception upon. Born in Moscow in 1945 but with Ukrainian roots, the conductor was a champion of bringing rarely heard (and even more rarely recorded) works to the fore, as much out of a sense of civic duty as artistic curiosity, something that stayed with him and was inherited by his children, pianist/vocal coach Maria; conductors Vladimir, and Dmitri. It is a family rich in artistic lineage as much as intellectual probing, as concerned with present exploration as much embracing the past, and looking to the future not with a worried sigh, but a defiant, direct stare.
This year’s festival is dedicated to the memory of Michail Jurowski, whose memory will be most poignantly marked on Sunday (3 July), when youngest son Dmitri Jurowski leads the Saxon State Orchestra Dresden in a programme of works by Silvestrov and Shostakovich, including the world premieres of Michail Jurowski’s arrangement of the latter composer’s The Human Comedy op.37 (1934) for concert orchestra, and Dmitri Jurowski’s arrangement of Six Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva opera.143a (1973) with soprano Evelina Dobračeva and chamber orchestra. The transposition of voice feels somehow very right for an artist like Dmitri Jurowski, a cellist with an innate feeling for vocal expression, both human and instrumental. Over the past two decades, he has led over one hundred different opera productions for a range of celebrated houses, including Bayerische Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Teatro La Fenice, Grand Théâtre Geneva, Lyric Opera Chicago, Israeli Opera Tel Aviv, and the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. From 2011 to 2016 he was was General Music Director of the Flemish Opera Antwerp / Ghent. Jurowski’s history with opera does not obscure his deep sensitivity to (and with) orchestral scores – he has worked with the BBC Philharmonic Manchester, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Stockholm, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Shanghai Philharmonic, to name a few. One of my own favourite recordings features the works of Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960) with Jurowski leading the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal (Cybele, 2018). With iron-hand-in-velvet-glove confidence, the conductor coaxes a luscious lyricism from the string section in Symphonic Minutes for orchestra op.36 (1933), a lyricism that is carried through into conversational woodwind exchange so lovingly conveyed in the piece’s second movement Rapsodia: Andante, and manifest in an energetic final Rondo: Presto, which is resplendent with busy strings and Jurowski’s repeated emphasis on cross-sectional conversation, allowing the drama which arises naturally from and within it to direct, turn a corner, then another; balance is thoughtfully maintained, but not at the expense of spirit; seriousness is equally present, but not without an equal dose of play.
Theatre, like music, would seem to be a part of the Jurowski family’s creative legacy, which, given the actual as well as artistic ties, only makes sense, given their long connection with many celebrated theatre artists, as well as Dmitri Shostakovich himself. The Human Comedy, composed for a 1934 stage adaptation of Balzac’s immense 19th century work by Russian writer Pavel Sukhotin (1884-1935), the mix of lightness and uncertainty of Balzac’s Paris, its surface charm hiding an anxious underbelly. The Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva possess their own form of drama, its power imparted via the fulsomeness of the poet’s vowels and consonants and the ways Shostakovich writes in, through, and around them. In listening to recordings, one is constantly confronted with the question of inner and outer ‘voices’, both vocal and instrumental, by experiences as much spoken as not; the third poem in the cycle (“Hamlet’s Dialogue With His Conscience”) with its ponderings on guilt, responsibility, notions of love and romance, and micro/macro ideas of place, speaks directly to the fourth (“The Poet And The Tsar”) and fifth (“No, The Drum Beat”) with its meditations on private-public faces and paradigms of power within various spheres of influence. The composer’s ever-present internal debates are reflected in this cycle, as much through the words of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) as through its chewy score, which was recorded by contralto Ortrun Wenkel under the baton of Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouworkest, released by Decca in 1993. Placing the Six Poems cycle on the same bill as The Human Comedy, written four decades earlier, feels ballsy and somehow, important, particularly in light of ongoing debates related to the various uses and teachings of music, the role of canon, the expectations of audiences, whether music ought to have an “identity” (and if so, what it should be), as well as perceptions of Music As Entertainment (“Unterhaltsmusik”) and (or, more tiresomely, versus) Music As Serious Art (“ernste Musik”). Can Balzac and Tsvetaeva (and Silvestrov, and Shostakovich) share a creative universe? Well, why shouldn’t they? Moreover, how could they not?
The concert barn at the International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, 2016. Photo: Oliver Killig
The lives and feelings these artists explored in their respective works, the words and sounds they choose for describing those lives and sharing inner thoughts, ask for the very quality Shostakovich himself seemed quite interested in (consciously or not), the thing which is in short supply as much in life as in art, especially at the moment: empathy. I am not a believer in music magically melting barriers; specific contexts (socio-economic, racial, religious) must be taken into account whenever one experiences new sounds – contexts as much as atmospheres, inner and outer, controllable and not. These things exist. Sounds don’t magically ping them away. The ways in which one experiences the work of Silvestrov and Shostakovich (and/or writers and poets) are as relevant as one possessing a background in either’s work, or both, or none. These things are as much related to context as the environment in which one experiences such works, environments filled with all manner of human comedy, tragedy, mediocrity, diversion, novelty, affliction, agenda, and (one hopes) opportunities for contemplation. Ugly circumstances, harsh realities, human life in all its variance, must be recognized. Lived realities, and the inevitable lines they (mostly unconsciously) create do not magically melt; they simply are. It’s up to you to acknowledge them. Thus is art’s role as a vehicle of empathy vital; If we are unwilling to do the actual, real work of feeling another’s experience (much less acknowledging it as real), particularly those who have not had the privilege we have enjoyed (and perhaps do not even recognize), if we do not conscientiously direct imagination toward those foreign experiences which are beyond our direct experience and knowledge (and thus may be unpleasant, unfamiliar, dull, wearying), then what use is theatre, art, music, culture? Leo Tolstoy grappled with this very question in What Is Art? (1897):
The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena. (trans. Aylmer Maude, 1899)
Painter Mark Rothko would later say that “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” While such strength and visibility of reaction is personal, and may or may not be warranted (in the age of social media reaction can be more performative than authentic), that doesn’t cancel its validity within a real, lived framework. Empathy is needed in times of strife – in times of war, in times of pandemic, in times of division, separation, hostility, horror, anger, intransigence; it is work, indeed. Empathy is the energetic opposite of whataboutism that so heavily (alas) dominates contemporary discourse, and it is the hardest thing to keep alive, let alone cultivate, when algorithms inspire (and profit from) strong reaction, not slow thought. Consider slow thought, the festival in Gohrisch seems to whisper; slow thought is, very possibly, the very thing that best cultivates empathy. Somehow I can hear Silvestrov, Shostakovich, Balzac, Tsvetaeva, and Michail Jurowski whispering such a suggestion a bit more loudly right now.
And so, amidst such consideration, and one hopes, a related cultivation of empathy within creative realms, is a conversation in which family, culture, creation, grief, poetry, and that sticky, marvellous word “transposition” are all carefully, slowly considered. It was a true privilege and pleasure to speak with Dmitri Jurowski, and to hear, over the course of nearly an hour, his observations and ideas on music, writing, sound, performance, and his father’s influence. I remain grateful for his time and energy.
Why did you choose the Tsvetaeva song cycle – why arrange it it for chamber orchestra?
This work of Dmitri Shostakovich was one of my father’s favourite compositions. The whole concert is dedicated to him – actually the concert, and the whole festival, which he had planned one year ago, was one he was supposed to conduct. So when everything happened of course we decided not to make any changes in the programme – the only thing we did was put in the Tsvetaeva cycle. That was not foreseen; originally it was a Shostakovich violin concerto with the bigger orchestra, but since the pandemic is still going on, the orchestra actually asked to have a work in the programme which is for chamber, not a big group. That was the first thing they asked, and the (the song cycle) was one of his favourite pieces. During his funeral his recording of it was played many times during the day – so we decided to do this. Also there was one little change (to the work itself). It was written for mezzo soprano, but we wanted to do this together with (soprano) Evelina Dobračeva; I know her, we studied together, she was working more with my father than with me, and during all these years they made many projects together. He was like a teacher for her, and it was very important to have her on board for this project, so the only thing we had to do was change the tonalities for the cycle, because for a soprano it’s really too low. That was the only thing we did. The programme’s second half, The Human Comedy, will be a very special thing; it’s a world premiere. The work has been performed in the past of course, but it’ll be the first time the whole music, music for theatre, is done, the way it was played in Moscow in the theatre of Vakhtangov in 1934. That was the only year it was performed in the theatre, so that’s why we had to go and find it all; it was a real adventure to find that material. I spent a lot of time in different archives in Moscow, in the Vakhtangov Theatre, searching for it – I have good friend who is an actor who helped me, and it was a real thrill to find all the notes of the director from that time, his writing on when exactly which part of music was supposed to be played. Luckily they were very bureaucratic in the 1930s, so I could find everything I needed, but it’s still interesting. I’m really thrilled – again, yes, it will be the first time it’s performed.
The Human Comedy has been dismissed in the past as something Shostakovich simply did for the money, but having it in a chamber arrangement also means it forces a reconsideration…
You’re right, it’s becomes very transparent because of that. As to my opinion on its inception, the same thing you can say about Mozart: a lot of music and composers wrote for money. It was normal, they did it for a living, but even what Shostakovich did for the money was great. I think he had a lot of humour, sometimes very black humour, cynical humour, so even with the music he was writing for entertainment, it still becomes, somehow, very biting. And it’s interesting that the problems in the society they were facing in the 1920s and 1930s, I have the feeling many of these things we are facing again. Shostakovich was saying the music, there is actually a great quote of his, that music is the only thing which should survive any wars and any illnesses. I have the feeling now in the beginning of the 21st century we are back in the same situation somehow. We have to somehow prove that art, that music, has the power and the possibility to survive and bring, a little bit, people back together, that’s actually the only thing you can do in this really difficult situation.
Conductor Michail Jurowski leads the Staatskapelle Dresden and cellist Isang Enders at the inaugural International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch in 2010. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
The context in which it is presented is important, your father’s history with the festival being very much part of that context. I’m curious what you think attracted him to this work. I recall him telling me years ago that conducting in America was like a dream for him – something that really wouldn’t be expressed now – and I can only theorize that such an experience, and the related feelings of curiosity and wonder, play into Balzac’s explorations about the variance of human experience, and Shostakovich’s also.
Yes, I’m thinking a lot in the last few months about his relationship to Shostakovich as well. It’s a strange thing, my father had such a close relationship to (the composer) in a human sense, as well as professionally. It was such that I always had the feeling I knew Shostakovich myself, even though it’s not possible. We spoke a lot about Shostakovich from my childhood and now since my father is no longer here I think about this energy he was creating, because you are right, I feel strongly his presence is still here. Even though I’m not able to ask him in real life for advice, I feel it, and it has been like that before when I was in touch with the music of Shostakovich – I was doing a lot of his music throughout my life and always feel an energetic support from him myself, although I didn’t know him. My father would speak about a genetic memory, and I think it’s valuable; he himself had strong genetic memory because of his father and grandfather. The period of The Human Comedy, or when we speak about Balzac and the 19th century, or the first thirty years of 20th century when this piece was written for theatre, those are all periods my father couldn’t know himself, but still a very strong connection existed. And I have the feeling it’s not an accident that history sometimes makes these repetitions – that is also a little bit related to this Human Comedy, to this exchange of tragedy and comedy, this continuance; it never stops.
So the idea of Shostakovich, as with other artists, is that there is no end of the story – there might be the end of somebody’s life, but the whole story will continue with other characters, like a play. So when you feel part of the huge theatrical play, that’s also what people like Shakespeare imagined, then you… have to also create a distance to everything, which is not bad, especially in our days, because it is very difficult to continue and to go on when you are facing really very strong negative things, like war, like illness –so you need a distance to all that.
But you also need immediacy, a sense of relationship to what you watch, what you listen to, the people you spend time with, the food you eat, whatever you consume in whatever forms, and I feel Shostakovich really understood that – your father understood that also. That sense of connection is powerfully manifest in chamber arrangements. How, to your mind, does changing the tonality for voice, and within a chamber configuration, affect understandings of Tsvetaeva’s poetry, and Shostakovich’s music?
The word “transposition” is a great word; it has so much inside of it! I am always curious why we call it, in musical language, a transposition from one tonality or modulation to another one – of course it will be another piece, so I am very curious how this particular piece will sound. Every tonality has a colour; every tonality has a character, so when you change tonalities you change a lot of things – that’s clear. But we have to take into account that every piece of music we hear, from Baroque times or from Classical times, that all the tonalities – all the G Minors and whatnot – from that period are not the same as now because of the tuning, so when you start to play this music in the way it was done at the time it was written, then you understand it’s really another feeling. But it doesn’t mean you have to do that – you can play it also in the modern tonalities, with modern instruments. The times are changing and the acoustics are changing. What I can say about the Tsvetaeva work is, I have a feeling for now anyway, that the music itself remains dark, the cycles of Shostakovich remain dark, even if we put everything one tone higher, but the transference of the text now means it might be even stronger because of that. When you take the very high voices with the very high notes you can barely understand them.
For example, I’m talking now a little bit lower, because there is also microphone so I don’t have to raise my voice so much, but if I’m talking to somebody, the minute I speak a little bit higher, the attention, the whole energy, changes – it’s like a string pulled tighter, the whole connection is stronger, right at this moment. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different kind of energy, so I’m really curious how (the song cycle) will be, but it’s my feeling that the darkness becomes more transparent there. Also the number of musicians onstage is really not big, you can do it with a bigger group, but for me, I’m not a pianist, I’m a cellist – I was doing a lot of chamber music and a lot of soloistic music, especially, so it’s a different feeling. My best memories were the cycles of Shostakovich with the Blok poetry which is written for piano trio and voice, and there were movements where you had just cello and voice together, and this type of intimacy where you have this one voice and one instrument, for me is something I always try to aim for even when I have a big symphony to perform. I’m always searching for these intimate moments when you can really produce this kind of tension. It’s like when you have a crowd of people and everyone is talking and then suddenly everyone is silent and you have two people looking at each and talking to each other – that’s powerful. This silence is extremely strong. And for somebody like Tsvetaeva, her work really asks for silence, even if she’s screaming or crying, it’s not for mainstream television, let’s say.
Some translations capture that relationship between silence and music better than others; the repetitions in her writing are staccato in some ways – so deliberate, so rhythmic, so musical.
They really are…
I wonder if people miss that musicality because of the drama, but she’s asking as much for a subconscious understanding through that musicality as a conscious one through the words themselves, and I think Shostakovich captures both in this song cycle…
Yes that’s true!
.. now I wanted to ask you, these chamber sounds, vocal sounds, ensemble sounds – the ways you perceive sound, and write, conduct, and transpose, are they informed by the cello?
Yes, you’re right; they are. I have to say, my biggest learning, one of my best schooling in working with singers was by playing cello, because it is the instrument which has the biggest connection to the human voice. It includes the whole range of all possible sounds, from bass to soprano, in one instrument. I remember I had an ensemble, a chamber group, we performed with a baritone, me as a cellist, and a pianist, we were doing many arrangements, not only opera arias but we were also playing, lots of duets for example, of Schumann and Schubert, where one voice was played by cello and one was singing, and there was always a moment where you consciously lost this – like “where is the voice and where is the cello?” This is also what Shostakovich really did great, his understanding of sounds, of the voice as an instrument, was really central. So when vocalists deal with Shostakovich, they have to really think like an instrument, especially for performing his music, it’s a great need. Of course it helps when you have, generally, great poetry. In Italian opera you sometimes have a kind of text which is, I don’t want to say it’s useless, but of course you have it sometimes where the words are really not important but the vocal line is, and that’s something else – but when you deal with Russian or German or also sometimes Italian, but another type of style, like something from Petrarch or Dante, something where the text is leading, it’s obvious how the music has to be.
That’s why it’s so great with Shostakovich: the music has to be leading and carrying at the same time. And especially when you see the amazing last movement of the cycle, when it’s about Akhmatova, so Tsvetaeva is writing about Akhmatova, through Shostakovich’s musical line, it’s just… you have so many incredible people in one little musical bar… it’s immense. For a conductor, a musician, a listener, it doesn’t matter – you have to show it to others, you don’t have to show yourself, you don’t have to pretend your art is higher or mightier than anything those people were creating. It’s not about you. That’s why it’s so important to be a little bit aside, and to be a little bit under this, let’s say, sound, still controlling everything, still producing your language, and with your capacities, but! This is too fragile, all this music and chamber music generally is very fragile, and in combination with poetry of Tsvetaeva and music of Shostakovich, you can’t just throw it somewhere; you have to touch it as if it’s crystal. That’s the best possibility, for everyone … to hear, to listen, to inhale it. That’s why I am always looking forward, so much, to all these sorts of concerts, but energetically they take… it’s a much bigger challenge than a huge symphony or opera. It’s sometimes much more difficult to produce something like that.
Your use of the word “fragility” brings Silvestrov’s work to mind. He is on the programme with Shostakovich on Sunday. How do you see the connection?
The interesting thing is I performed Silvestrov in my time as a cellist many years ago. His work is always very much related to beauty, and it’s very honest music; he was never trying to pretend that he was the big modernist of the 20th century. Somebody like Arvo Pärt is also not a modernist but is very much about the spirit of music. I know Pärt very well, we spoke a lot about music, and you can feel how important the spiritual energy has always been for him in his life, and not only in his music – but with Silvestrov, it’s different; it’s so simple with him. Of course now the situation has changed. He’s not the only existing Ukrainian composer but he’s the big one being performed. He’s the oldest, for sure – luckily it’s still alive, and he will be present on Sunday. For musicians performing his music now, you can imagine it’s even more a responsibility now than it was twenty years ago, and still, I am absolutely sure it is so important for him as a composer, and for us as interpreters, to play music, to make music, to show the artistic side of Silvestrov. Shostakovich was much more political than Silvestrov, of course, they were much different times in which Shostakovich lived. But he was somebody who was a fighter; he was always fighting crises. Somehow, luckily for him, he didn’t need to invent anything; it was already present in reality. Shostakovich generally works very well in combination with other composers of the Soviet Union of the 20th century, but with a little bit different way of energy.
It’s interesting that Silvestrov is being honoured at the festival this year, and that his work is on this programme with the Shostakovich chamber arrangements.
Especially the Tsvetaeva work, which comes directly after the Silvestrov piece. His work is chamber music, and it’s about feeling, about atmosphere. With Shostakovich there is a script, always, there is a clear storyline, even if it’s not… even if you play Shostakovich’s chamber music without words, still, yes, he is the narrator of the story. Silvestrov, it was always my feeling, he’s a witness of atmosphere, and he’s sharing that atmosphere. So that’s why I think there is a good link between them.
He’s an observer of atmosphere and putting it out there has its own kind of interpretation of script…
… it’s one that is being written as it’s being played, and it changes all the time. That’s what I hear in Silvestrov, not a narrative but a sort of Beckett play where there’s a very pervasive mood that is inherent to overall understanding. I wonder if that’s another connection with the work of Shostakovich, that development of feeling with inner and outer worlds.
That’s about performing, though. Performing must include a script – whatever you are doing, it must have a certain sense. Sometimes you have a kind of clear help from the composer who is writing everything already, so you have just to comment; in other cases you have to create a script for yourself, and with the music of Silvestrov it’s not difficult. Especially in the 21st century – and the 20th they had it as well – you have movies, when you know how a movie can work, and you know what the perfect music is for it. That’s essentially what Shostakovich said about Silvestrov – they knew each other of course. Silvestrov is 84 years old now, he knew Shostakovich, who was always very polite to his colleagues, and had a lot of respect for people like Schnittke and Kancheli. I remember hearing from the widow of Shostakovich, from Irina, I spoke to her two weeks ago about this concert, and she said, “Yes, he always respected Silvestrov, he said (Silvestrov’s) music is amazing especially when somebody knows how to paint.” So somehow it’s an interesting way to describe his music.
So if Shostakovich is Kandinsky, Silvestrov is Mark Rothko?
Good point, yes.
Experiencing all these “paintings” in a live setting on Sunday, one which is so historically loaded, and especially with you doing it, feels profound, though it must be a little daunting for you?
What do you mean?
Parental figures who give their children deep connections to art can cast large shadows, as my own mother did; after she passed and I had to go do things in public with some kind of connection to her, it was like walking into a room naked; I learned that one has to draw a line between what one gives the public and saves for one’s self.
Well, you know Catherine, when I chose this profession and started to conduct, having my father and my brother, these important and successful conductors already, I knew I would be kind of naked my entire life. So that’s nothing new to me. I’ve done this job for seventeen years now. The only thing which is kind of changing for myself, not for other people, is that I feel my… responsibility, first of all, for this profession since he passed away, is now bigger than it was before. Because now I have not only to be just to be on a certain professional level, we all have to achieve this for all our lives, but I have also to respect and show respect to his memory, you know? And respect to memory, responsibility for somebody who is not there anymore, physically at least, for me it’s now an experience to say that somehow it’s even bigger, but it gives you more energy.
I remember the day he passed away, on the 19th of March, this day I was in my theatre in Novosibirsk and the next day I had Traviata to conduct, not the easiest opera to do, especially… but the thing is… whatever piece I would conduct, whatever I would take, my father had such a huge repertoire and had done so many things in his life, so there is always a kind of link to him. And I have to be honest, I didn’t have so much energy to go onstage of course at that time, but I did it, because I knew he would really appreciate it at this precise moment. And I mean I always have, it’s one of the main reasons I do this profession, is that I have very special feelings for singers – that’s the most fragile and most sensitive thing because you have an instrument here, inside. I always trying to treat the singers with a necessary sensitivity, but now I have the feeling it’s even more, because I know they have to produce out their emotions they have inside, you know? So this experience is something, and it’s the thing that will stay with me forever. I know of course there is always a period of grief you have to go through and some of your parents or the people close to you die, and somehow it’s over, you’re over this hill, and you still have the memories but there’s a distance…
… I can tell you the grief comes back, but in a different form.
Yes, I have the feeling when we talk about him, it will never be completely distant to me. We are doing the same profession and my life and profession are the same thing. There will be, always, a strong connection, and probably through the years, it will become even stronger.
Top: Dmitri Jurowski leads a rehearsal with the Staatskapelle at the Semper Opera. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
The extent to which concert and opera-going habits have changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is slowly becoming known. Recent announcements suggest that many organizations are playing it safe (or what they perceive as safe) in offering reams of favored classical chestnuts for 2022-2023 seasons in order to entice audiences, both old and new, back into the concert halls and opera houses. Any semblance of challenge is being left largely within the parameters of individual approaches – an interesting twist on “make your own fun”, perhaps – but one might still wish such notions (challenge, individual thought, critical thinking) hold some form of value in the post-pandemic classical landscape. I would like to believe that the idea of challenge – and its first cousin, curiosity – do indeed matter, and that whatever choices are (or be perceived as) over-cautious within future programming might be somehow reconfigured in order to open the door to more careful, contextualized listening / live experiences. As someone fascinated by how sounds transmit both verbal and non-verbal meaning, it has become a natural, near-unconscious habit to listen not passively but passionately. My ears, as I remarked to someone recently, have grown teeth; everything is evaluated with an intense energy and attention to detail. Developing incisive listening (and seeing, and evaluating) skill, however unconsciously, does not, despite being a music writer, always bring benefits; such habit is now perceived in some quarters as churlishness, over-criticism, over-analysis, even (heaven forbid), ingratitude (“You should be grateful live music is back at all!”). Yet this aural and visual approach, one now so useful amidst so many programming announcements, is not to be turned off or hidden, but rather, used in the interests of feeding curiosity, furthering inquiry, broadening the field of discovery.
So what a treat it was, to come across the album Mélodies (Audax, 2020) by soprano Adriana González and Basque pianist/conductor Iñaki Encina Oyón earlier this year. Featuring the largely-unknown songs of French composers Robert Dussaut (1896-1969) and Hélène Covatti (1910-2005), the album is a stellar showcase of González’s immense vocal talents, conveying a strong sense of the Guatemala-born soprano’s immense gift in integrating sensitive interpretation and smart technical approach; comparisons to the late Welsh soprano Margaret Price (1941-2011) come to mind, and have been rightly noted. The natural chemistry between González and Oyón share is evident through album’s 22 tracks, with the soprano’s coloration, phrasing, and textures matched by the pianist’s poetic tempos, touch, and dynamism, creating a luscious showcase of the hauntingly beautiful writing of each of the respective composers. “Adieux à l’étranger“ (1922) is a wistful work, Dussaut’s writing recalling the lyrical qualities of Massenet, while Covatti’s “Berceuse” shows clear connections to Ravel and De Falla; in each, González’s skillfully modulates voice and dynamics with and around Oyón’s delicate, intuitive playing. Mélodies is a very rewarding, very captivating listen, one that provides a wonderful introduction to both the composers and to Gonzalez’s larger talents, tantalizingly hinting at the explosive intensity which she so ably channels in live performance.
Winner of the First and Zarzuela Prizes at the Operalia competition in 2019, González has performed with Oper Frankfurt, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Opéra de Toulon, Opéra national de Lorraine, Opera Naţională Română Timişoara. Most recently she made her American debut with Houston Grand Opera, singing the role of Juliette in Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette opposite tenor Michael Spyres. This month sees Gonzalez perform Verdi’s Requiem in Portugal, a work she will perform again later this year with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; other roles next season include Michaela in Carmen (with Dutch National Opera, Paris Opera, and with Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège) and as Echo in Gluck’s Écho et Narcisse with Opéra Royal, Versailles. Having become a member of the Atelier Lyrique of the Paris Opera in 2014, González has developed a wide repertoire, one that hews to her rich if highly flexible lyric soprano style, with an emphasis on Mozart, Rossini, and Puccini so far. That doesn’t mean she isn’t prepared to expand her fach, but she does it with maximum awareness of her instrument – its demands, its realities, the stamina required and the ways it can be fostered with grace and sensitivity, all whilst simultaneously exercising a clear artistic curiosity. González’s recital with Oyón earlier this year in Dijon featured music from her Dussaut/Covatti album, as well as music by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), Fernando Obradors (1897-1945), Frederic Mompou (1893-1987), as well as songs from her recent album, Albéniz: Complete Songs (Audax), a 30-track exploration of the Spanish composer’s varied vocal oeuvre. Released last October and rightly nominated for an 2022 International Classical Music Award (ICMA), the album is a seamless integration of chemistry, technique, and artistry with González again delivering a stunning display of her immense vocality and feeling for the art of song.
As I learned when we spoke recently, González, while highly aware of her powerful, affecting sound, is also aware of her desire to stretch, explore, and cultivate her talent creatively, with a firm hold of context at every step. We started off discussing what it was like to quickly step into the role of Liù for a performance of Turandot in Houston, as she was concurrently performing Juliette. Stress, what stress? González seems too focused a performer to let nerves ever get the best of her, and her recollection of the experience was coloured more by a mix off excitement, disbelief, and gratitude than any dregs of self-doubt. González is as much earthy as she is studious, and that intensity I referenced earlier is, as ever, always in the service of a knowing approach to craft. Such a combination of ingredients makes for a meal that satisfies toothsome ears, and for a very rewarding form of listening amidst post-pandemic times.
When I learned about your quickly stepping into the role of Liù I reviewed my 2019 conversation with conductor Carlo Rizzi about Turandot, who called that character the heart of the opera. What was it like to step into that world so quickly?
Musically it was quite something – but I didn’t do the staging. They had me singing from the side and had an actor doing the staging tagging because Robert Wilson’s Turandot is very precise in terms of movements. The actress didn’t know the music really well, so (the production team) were talking to her through an earpiece and she had someone telling her, “Walk here, do this, do that, step left, one step back – no you stepped too far” – for her I can’t imagine what it was like. For me of course Liù is such a different vocality from Juliette, it was like, “Okay, go for it!” In Roméo et Juliette I thought, “Keep it proper, it’s French” and with Puccini, well, it’s home very much for me vocally, but I hadn’t sung Liù since 2019 and in doing it recently I thought, “Oh my voice has really grown, it’s changed, this feels different” – so that was wonderful. And the conductor, Eun Sun Kim, is amazing; every entrance was so clear, she would be waiting attentively at other moments; she knows the text of everything. She was there every step. It was like, “I know my part but I’m glad you do too!”
You said in a past interview that in preparing for a role you go over the vowel sounds and various details of vocalizing. What has it been like for you to examine the sounds within the text – has your process changed? I’m thinking here specifically of your doing Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in Paris in 2019.
Iolanta was difficult because I don’t speak Russian and it was a secondary role – it was Brigitta, one of her nurses, and it was one of the contracts I did from the studio years in Paris. I had to do it but otherwise, I would be very skeptical to choose a role in an opera which is written in a language I don’t speak, because I find you really need to learn the language, you need to understand the cultural context and background from which the words originate. French is great for me: I know all the expressions; I find humour. When you see the phrases in opera, used in day to day, you can react better, just from an acting point of view –you can react better and propose things knowing the meaning of the text, from a technical and vocal technique point of view. You need to know the meaning of the word to know what kind of colour and what kind of nuance works also. For example, if you’re saying “I’m hesitating” then you don’t want to say “hesitating” or the feeling it implies so beautifully, it’s a feeling that doesn’t reflect something good – maybe it can be a good thing in the long run, but in the moment hesitation is doubt, it’s a feeling of unbalanced things. This is a lot of the thought process – you need to find a way of expressing that feeling clearly. And then of course we singers, we do these sounds and feelings through vowels, not through consonants specifically, so if you have vowel sounds, you need to make them a bit more acid if you are expressing a certain feeling, and you need to do it in a way so the whole experience of the word comes through. That’s the background we singers need to do even years before we start, just looking at the role and singing the role, because it’s muscular training you have to do to find those colours, and so you don’t get in trouble. You can’t do colours and really go for it with just your acting instinct. You have to take care of yourself, so that when you do those colours you’re not hurting your instruments. It’s a balance.
When I spoke with Etienne Dupuis earlier this year, he said how doing Don Carlos opened the door to many new things he hadn’t experienced singing it prior in Italian, but I wonder about the “acid sounds” – how much might such a vocal choice disturb perceptions of beauty in opera? If you’re concerned about making the expected “beautiful” sound you risk flattening the drama into this heterogeneous sonic mass, but committing to the sounds you describe means risking the way you – and your voice – are perceived by those who hold fast to notions of ‘the beautiful’ as paramount.
Tamara Wilson, who is amazing Turandot, dares to go piano, and it’s in those moments where you can really see Turandot’s vulnerability – and hearing that approach changes absolutely everything. It’s no longer this sort of scream-and-fight cliché– her performance has this power and this contrast, but also has length: the role is long enough that she can showcase all the colours she has. For some singers it is sometimes difficult. I did four years of young artist programs, and it was through that experience that I learned short roles can be just as hard; in a long role you have to pace yourself –when to do what –you have this amazing amount of time to showcase your whole palette. But with a short role, it’s just that little bit of time – I did a small role in Rigoletto, for instance – in which you can’t show a lot, but definitely when you have a longer role you make decisions on how to showcase the beauty but also the anguish, because opera is very much about real life. There are sad moments –you want to make people cry and think about beauty – but it also has to be real emotion. It can’t be beautiful all the time; there has to be a balance between the elements. There has to be a balance between where and how you choose the moments to really go for pain, and all else.
This speaks to theatre, does it not? To the power of theatre?
Theatre is firmly part of what opera is, and indeed these operas – Turandot is Carlo Gozzi via Friedrich Schiller, by way of Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni; Roméo et Juliette is Shakespeare by way of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Do you, alongside opera recordings, examine the plays and/or performances of plays as part of your preparation?
I did read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and I also heard an audio book performance of it, to hear the inflections of the language, and to hear how the pain of certain scenes was expressed through the words – some of those inflections of text were so powerful. I also listened because of (curiosity around) the stage movement; the Houston production has specific stage movement; we had to train to do and we rehearsed, but I find if the emotion and intention are clear, then that helps you, no matter how you move, no matter the specifics. The intention of the action is there in the background. I definitely went through that process and got a good feeling: “Okay this is a painful moment” Also it was good to compare Shakespeare to what Gounod took for his final libretto – it’s very different. There are varying characters who are emphasized or not emphasized, and the family feud (in Gounod) is in the background compared to what Shakespeare presents. Also I couldn’t help but notice Juliet’s cheekiness – she’s very cheeky in Shakespeare; Gounod’s Juliette is more fragile and sentimental.
How much was working with Michael Spyres (as Roméo) an aid to the process?
From the first day Michael and I clicked really well. I’m a World Youth Choir baby – I did that really young, that’s what sort of got me to Europe – and I had always heard about Michael Spyres, as he was also in that choir as a kid. We’d heard of each other too – all of our friends know each other but we hadn’t actually met ourselves, but then we did and it was like, “You! Yes, you!” We clicked immediately – it was a wonderful meeting. Working with him was fabulous. He’s such a professional, he knows how to manage his instrument and be expressive, and he’s so much about the text also. It was a beautiful and natural collaboration. Even outside of the duos, he’s someone who really listens to what you’re doing – I listen to what he’s doing also. The first time we did a run-through, we did it one way; the second time was comp different because we were listening to each other so intently, so we felt good to make changes already. He’s a wonderful colleague. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful Roméo. Even without verbal language, it is so clear we are so much on the same page.
Michael Spyres and Adriana González in Romeo and Juliet at Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Lynn Lane.
Singers often emphasize chemistry – either it’s there or it isn’t. That’s important in a romantic opera, I should think… ?
It is important! It’s also a thing connected to life experiences. Talking with Michael, we’ve shared a lot of life experience, him and the countries he’d lived in, and me from Guatemala. Certain experiences create a certain way of thinking. Even if we grew up in different countries, he’ll say something about what he saw and I’ll say, “Hey, that happens in my country too!” So the life experiences are shared and create the way you behave and interact. That was also something that added to our work relationship.
And somehow the details, as you say, fall away. When you are doing this kind of project you can still come from your different places with all the related cultural backgrounds, but the meeting point somehow still exists, and that meeting happens in opera, and on record. Your album of Dussaut-Covatti is a good example, though I confess I hadn’t heard of the composers before hearing it…
That’s totally normal!
I don’t feel so bad now…
Don’t feel bad, seriously!
When you refer to chemistry, that is something definitely evident with your pianist, Iñaki Encina Oyón, through these songs; why make an album of their work?
I’m glad the complicity Iñaki and I have comes through. Now why do I say it’s normal not to know these composers? Because they are very unknown! The project came out of a very personal project for Iñaki and myself; the two composers, Dussaut and Covatti, are the parents of Iñaki’s piano teacher from Toulouse. When he left Spain he studied piano and conducting in Toulouse, and his piano teacher was the pianist Thérèse Dussaut (b. 1939), daughter of Hélène Covatti and Robert Dussaut. Thérèse doesn’t have children and she is getting older, and at the time she said to him, “Hey you know a lot of singers, why don’t you take my parents’ music and see what you can do with it?” Iñaki has such a curious brain, he loves to read and discover old composers, he digs for music all day, and one day he said, “Adriana let’s sight-read this.” The songs fit my voice so perfectly – the way it’s written was perfect with the tessitura and with the French. We went on to have a lot of fun performing them in recital. One day we decided to record them because otherwise, we worried they’d be lost to history – most were manuscripts, so we made a new edition of the scores, and recorded the album. The composers have so many other works – and Robert Dussaut was awarded the Grand Prix De Rome, the biggest composition prize you can win in France, he got it back in 1924 – it’s a prize Gounod won also; although Gounod only got it the second time he applied (in 1839, for the cantata Fernand), and Dussaut won it the first time around. It was music that had also not been done, and so it was wonderful to not be compared to anyone else and do something not done ten-thousand times already. The record label, Audax, is also independent, and their slogan is “Stay Curious” – they basically do unknown works, mainly Baroque and instrumental things, but are slowly taking on voice also.
As to Iñaki, that starts World Youth Choir also, like Michael. In 2012 Iñaki was the Assistant Conductor of the project and I was a choir person who did a solo, which I auditioned for. He heard me and said, “Where do you come from? What is this voice? Where did you train?” I said, “I want to sing Mimi!” I was 18 or 19 years old, and he said, “You know there’s the opera studios…” He informed me of all of these programs and how things work in Europe. I’d never left Guatemala – and a year later he invited me to Paris to do a production with him and invited the director of the Paris opera studio with whom he’s very good friends – Christian Schirm – and they got me the audition for the Paris casting people. It turns out they needed a Zerlina for the studio and took me in and asked me subsequently to stay in the program. And, all of that happened because of Iñaki, and his selflessness in wanting to help young talent. So I really owe him everything, he’s a wonderful friend and travels where I am singing – he came from Paris to Houston to see my Juliette debut, for instance. He’s really a close friend. So when you say the chemistry comes through on the album, that is really a wonderful compliment! We worked so hard on that album, and to express what’s written in the scores.
And now you’re shifting gears entirely, to Verdi’s Requiem. How do you prepare for something like this, especially something you’ll be performing across different continents?
When I accepted I thought, wait, should I have taken a longer pause between things? But it’s definitely something I did not want to turn down – the first one in Portugal at the end of May came as a proposal from Lorenzo Viotti. His sister Marina Viotti is doing the mezzo solo and she is one of my best friends. I thought, I’m not missing this opportunity to perform with my friend, and especially when it’s a first time for both of us! And also with her brother, I thought, really I can’t say no to this – so I will try to pace myself.
For singers, as a bit of context here, we are athletes, so we have to train vocally how we’ll use our muscles for the different types of writing from different types of composers. Gounod is different, specifically Juliette, to Verdi anything, of course. The wonderful thing is that the Verdi Requiem, if you look at the score, has many piani written and you have to keep a more slim position, a certain sort of throat opening, let’s say it that way – you can’t go full throttle, and doing a role like Juliette has helped keep that youth in the voice. Also having done a rebel kind of a Juliette has helped build the stamina for doing the Verdi Requiem, even with such different writing styles. I’ve learned the whole of the music and I’ll have a week to switch over from the Gounod to the Verdi – it’ll be a lot of training over that week. I’m slowly adapting my muscles and stretching them in a different way so I’ll be prepared to do Verdi. It’s such an iconic piece, and there’s been lots of reading, lots of analyzing, considering how to phrase the music – how to place this or that vowel; how to breathe in this place or that; how to make the larynx go into position so I can get a specific colour at a certain point –and how to get there fresh, so I can achieve that sound needed at the end of the Requiem but still have this sound of youth for the beautiful phrases at the very beginning.
Stamina is the right word – but it’s a different kind of stamina required for Verdi’s work rather than Gounod’s. How might this experience and the preparation for it carry over into future roles?
It takes a lot – but you do think about it: what decisions to make when; what roles to take on; what do I want to do in the next five years. My voice will go into Verdi repertoire. I want to still enjoy the roles I’m doing now – Mimi, Liù, the Contessa, Fiordiligi. A Desdemona in the middle would be wonderful too…
That’s a role I’d love to hear you do.
It’s one I’m really looking forward to doing – and I am going in that direction, slowly. It is where my voice is headed – but you need to know how to pace yourself. In past times singers would do 60 shows a year for one role; now it’s like, we do 4 shows… and, can we do more, please? It takes so much time and effort and knowledge and, again, time… to prepare a role and then you do 4 shows, and you think, well, I hope I get to do this more!
That’s why the covid era was so devastating; singers trained five years out for roles in operas that were cancelled or moved. I want to believe the industry learned something from that time, but I’m not so sure… what’s your take?
It’s definitely been a time that’s made us think slower, so we were not just jumping around from one thing to another without a thought. It’s been a reminder of the importance of taking the time to do your things with dedication – dedicating time to the music, time and energy the music deserves, not jumping from one thing to another, but just focusing on one thing. Do that one thing wonderfully, then close the book, turn the page, go to the next thing. It’s very important to be this deliberate, and it’s the key for a long career also, to do one thing at a time, and to focus on it, and give yourself time and space also. I mean, God knows before in the opera world, in the Golden Age as it’s called, travel wasn’t that fast, it took how long to get to the American continent from Europe –you had days to recover from your performances, and you would travel on the boat, and then have a production in the US. Rehearsals were different also, so much was at a slower pace. There’s a lot to remember and to think about from that era in terms of taking time to enjoy things, and to enjoy the music itself.
A bright spot amidst a sea of gloom lately has been the learning more about the music of Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), especially through the voice of a favorite soprano.
Hensel was the noted sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and the granddaughter of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Her position, as the musical daughter in an assimilated family (from Judaism to Lutheranism), allowed her both the freedom to write and the restriction of never enjoying a career. In 2012’s Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner (Cambridge University Press), author David Conway shares an observation from English writer Henry Chorley (1808-1872), who was also a friend to Felix Mendelssohn, in which he notes the profound connection between class and creativity: “Had Madame Hensel been a poor man’s daughter, she must have become known to the world by the side of Madame Schumann and Madame Pleyel as a female pianist of the highest class.” There are contrasting views in the musicology world around the extent to which Hensel might have pursued a professional music career were it not for the limitations of her social class and the times in which she lived.
Through such debates, one is bound to consider a broad range of circumstances, some of which was paid for by the privilege her social class allowed: the challenges in wanting to marry Catholic painter Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861); a poem Goethe himself dedicated expressly to her (“Wenn ich mir in stiller Seele”) in 1827 (which she subsequently set to music in 1828); of the trip to Italy with husband and son (1839-40) which allowed her to meet young prizewinner musicians (including Charles Gounod) and thus spurred her creative confidence; of her friendship with the German diplomat and music enthusiast Robert von Keudell (1824-1903) who was so supportive of her work; of her first experience having her music published (a collection of songs) in 1846 and her nervousness around her brother’s reaction to said publication thereafter. Hensel had not consulted Felix prior to the undertaking, but he did extend congratulations to her later, writing in a letter that “may the public pelt you with roses, and never with sand”. She later wrote in her own journal that “Felix has written, and given me his professional blessing in the kindest manner. I know that he is not quite satisfied in his heart of hearts, but I am glad he has said a kind word to me about it.” She and her brother worked closely exchanging creative ideas through an active correspondence, with Felix regularly reworking his own compositions based on her suggestions. The pair had made tentative plans for an opera based on Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), a 13th century German epic. In 1847 Hensel and Clara Schumann met a number of times as well, but a mere two months later, Hensel died of complications from a stroke. She was 41.
Though Hensel published in her own name (in 1846 technically listed as “Fanny Hensel geb. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy”), through time she has often been referred to solely in hyphenated form (Hensel-Mendelssohn, or vice-versa). Her own work comprises 450 works of music in total (including four cantatas, an orchestral overture, over 125 pieces for piano and in excess of 250 songs), and only became more recognized through the 1980s, through various recordings of her songs. In 2012, Hensel’s Easter Sonata for piano, lost for 150 years, was, at its discovery initially attributed to Felix Mendelssohn; the work was premiered in her name by Andrea Lam at Duke University, and later performed on BBC Radio 3 by Leeds Competition winner Sofya Gulyak. Duke Arts & Sciences Professor of Music R. Larry Todd noted the range of influences in the 1828 sonata, and that “we usually think of 19th-century European music as familiar enough terrain. Occasionally, though, a forgotten or lost composition comes to light, and the circumstances of its history prompt a reappraisal of the conventional wisdom about the century we thought we knew all too well.” In 2018, the Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn Museum opened in the Neustadt district of Hamburg, and more recently, November 2021, Google featured Hensel in a Doodle to mark her 216th birthday.
Acknowledging the various roles Hensel fulfilled in life allows one to more fully engage in her art, and to contemplate the whys, wherefores, and hows inherent to her creative process. Thus might one build an understanding, of not only her body of works, but the uniquely creative elements at play within them. Elements of the past (Bach, Beethoven, Schubert), contemporaneous (Schumann, Liszt), and future (Brahms, Liszt) intermingle in some thoughtful ways, and one senses, especially in her later works, a through-compositional style that would’ve found fulsome expression on the opera stage, a medium for which she would have been eminently suited. Soprano Chen Reiss agrees on this point, and brings her own beguiling brand of elegant, operatic flair to a new album. Fanny Hensel & Felix Mendelssohn: Arias, Lieder & Overtures (Onyx Classics) features two works by Mendelssohn himself (including concert overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Rome version, and the first version (1834) of the concert aria “Infelice!”, and, centrally, a number of Hensel’s own works. The Lobgesang cantata, orchestrations of eight of her songs (done by composer/pianist Tal-Haim Samnon), and the rarely-heard concert aria Hero und Leander round out an engaging and aurally luscious listen. Reiss is especially moving in her performance of “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben“, with its opening, a lonely oboe, flitting in and out in beautiful counterpoint to Reiss’s silky soprano. Her delivery of Goethe’s text is beautiful, a seamless integration of head as much as heart; the line “Alles schwankt ins Ungewisse” (“Everything shakes with uncertainty”) is sung with such immediacy, and moments later modulated into an achingly sad sort of acceptance, as “schwarzvertiefte Finsternisse widerspiegelnd ruht der See.” (Darkness steeped in black is reflected calmly in the sea.) The spell is cast; this is performance of the very highest order, and one cannot help but feel in hearing it, as with all the album’s thirteen tracks, that Hensel herself would be well-pleased.
The release, initiated by the joint efforts of soprano Chen Reiss and Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich (JCOM) Music Director Daniel Grossmann, releases in physical form today (digital release was earlier this month), and showcases the range of colours and theatricality which are deeply woven within Hensel’s writing. I recently had the chance to speak with Reiss and Grossmann, about how the project came about, what the orchestrations add to pieces that started out life as piano arrangements, and thoughts on Hensel’s work as a female Jewish composer in the 19th century. They will be presenting a live programme, called “Die Familie Mendelssohn”, at Munich’s Cuvilliés Theater on April 6th.
Chen Reiss and Daniel Grossman, with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich, in July 2021, performing as part of the celebrations marking 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany. (Photo: Stefan Randlkofer)
How did this project come about, and why did you decide to orchestrate some of Hensel’s pieces?
CR It started in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown. I was in Berlin and got a call when I was there from Daniel, asking if I would join his orchestra in a special concert being held in Munich in July 2021, to celebrate 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany. Daniel suggested that I sing a piece by Fanny from the Faust Cantata which I didn’t know – I knew her art songs, but didn’t know she wrote any music for orchestra, or larger-scale pieces for orchestra and singers. So I heard it and completely fell in love with her music, and I asked Daniel later, do you know if she composed anything else for soprano and orchestra? And he came up with Hero und Leander, and the Lobgesang (“Meine Seele ist stille”), the two arias orchestrated by Fanny, and I told him, listen we have so little time to rehearse for the concert, let’s rehearse and record everything, and it’ll be ready! Daniel was fine with that, and on it went…
DG … I think it was a great idea to do it that way. We chose the songs because, of course, there’s not enough pieces by Fanny for orchestra and soprano – the problem with the Faust Cantata is that it requires a choir, and with corona restrictions at the time we couldn’t integrate a choir into the live concert. It was not possible to make a recording with a choir at that time either, and so we had the idea to perform her songs instead, and to orchestrate some of those songs. Chen knew Tal in Israel and he orchestrated those songs we chose, and I think it’s a very nice combination – the songs and some of these very dramatic cantatas, both Infelice and Hero und Leander.
What do you think the orchestration adds?
DG I think the interesting thing with orchestrating piano songs is that you get many more colours. Orchestral song, as a form, was not really known at that time (mid 19th-century) – of course there are some, but very few. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, this genre of orchestral song came up with Mahler and Strauss. Today we are much more used to the sound of songs done with an orchestra and these songs get so much more colour and much more meaning through the orchestration. The way these pieces (on the album) were done, the way Tal uses the orchestra, it’s in a very … it’s not a big orchestra sound, it’s very chamber-sounding, and I like that.
CR What Tal did, he orchestrated these songs in a very delicate way, and in a very transparent way, and very often the strophenlieder, the strophe songs, they normally are with the piano, and each verse would sound the same. In “Der Rosenkranz“, for example, Hensel wrote sections one after the other, one page with all four of them, with a completely identical piano part, but when Tal orchestrated them, he used a different instrumentation for each of the strophes, and that to me, gives each one a uniquely different colour. It’s like a story that develops not just in words and in poetry but also musically, in colour.
To my ears, the arrangements highlight a narrative element, which is exemplified in the song where you’re doing a call-response with a flute…
… it’s so striking, you think, ‘Ah, yes, evocative sounds, there’s a narrative, there’s a story.’ And the timbre of a flute is so interesting with that of your voice…
CR Well what gave us the courage there, and to orchestrate overall, was the expression. For instance, with Hero und Leander, Hensel orchestrated that herself, and it is a very dramatic piece! She uses a very broad range of expression there – a recitativo, then an aria, then a sort of cabaletta, so to say. It’s true of Infelice, by Mendelssohn too, that there are three parts in that, all three are orchestrated in a different way – and that gave me courage. Her thinking – Fanny’s thinking – was dramatic, theatrical, even, and I personally think that had she been a man, she would have written an opera.
After hearing this album – I agree with you!
CR Hero und Leander is even more advanced in its language, its harmonic language, than Felix’s. I don’t know if you agree, Daniel…
CR… but it’s dramatic and sounds like Wagner in places, whose music of course came later – so I felt very good about these songs with orchestration and I think Tal did a great job with them. They come to life almost like theatre pieces.
How did you go about choosing these works specifically? Was there any sense that you were creating a broader story?
DG I chose the songs I liked most; I chose them by musical material. It’s not meant to be a story. Of course there are many more songs by her, all of which are beautiful, but these are the pieces I liked the most.
CR I had the fortune of meeting a very interesting lady in London who is a direct descendant of Fanny Hensel, and I actually learned from her about the character of this composer. She said if Felix was composed and well-behaved, like the facade of the family, everything proper, then Fanny was much more fiery and passionate, and so no wonder she wrote something like Hero und Leander, and also something like “Italien”, this song Felix published in his name – today we know that Fanny is the one who composed it. You probably saw me say this in another interview too: this song “Italien” was a favourite of Queen Victoria, and she asked Felix to play and sing it for her, when he visited Buckingham Palace, and it was then that he admitted to the Queen that his sister wrote it: “It’s not mine.” In the orchestration Tal added, especially with the extra bars it gives this evocative sound like you are in Tuscany somewhere. That’s one of my favourite songs, it shows she had a great sense of humour to choose that text and to orchestrate it.
You said in another interview that if her brother was more classical-leaning in terms of his sound, she was closer to Brahms…
CR Yes, Brahms came after her own time, as you know, but her harmonic language sounds a little bit more advanced than her own time. When I met her descendant and she told me how Fanny was very, very fiery and passionate and Felix, something she told me I didn’t know, he felt he had to kind of protect her from the public opinion – (the family) were worried if she were to have a (music) career in the open, that she might say something inappropriate, or do something which didn’t quite maybe sit well with her social class.
DG This is a very delicate question – about being Jewish, and about being a Jewish composer. They had a third sister and the two sisters were really Christian; there are a lot of quotes where you can see Felix felt very Jewish, and … I read a lot about the Mendelssohn family because I’m really into this question of ‘how Jewish is this family?’ and I think they are much more Jewish than people think today. But: Fanny felt very Christian. Their parents raised them in a Christian environment. So it’s really interesting: Felix refers to himself quite often as Jewish, but she does not. And I think it’s much more about being a woman – their father, and also Felix, said it’s not allowed for her to be a professional composer, she’s a woman so she should be at home with her family, a woman shouldn’t work. But I think it was another time, and she was, as Chen said before, very happily married, so being a wife and mother was not a problem for her, or being at home with her husband, this famous painter. So I’m not sure we should speak of her as a specifically Jewish composer.
CR Speaking for Daniel and myself, we didn’t do the album because she’s a female Jewish composer – we did it because it’s really great music. And yes, I think because it’s been done with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich, it’s nice that we have a project where we have two Jewish composers (together with Tal), but I don’t think it‘s a must. People ask me, what is Jewish music? I say, it’s a very big question, because there are also non-Jewish composers who wrote music which is much more Jewish than that of Felix and Fanny. I don’t know if you agree with me, Daniel…
DG For sure.
CR … so in that sense, I always say, Jewish music developed in so many ways, because the Jews didn’t have one country. It’s not like Czech music, for instance, which is connected to people who were in that territory specifically; Jewish music developed obviously from the liturgy, from prayers. But the same prayer done on Yom Kippur in Berlin sounds completely different than the same done in Baghdad – it’s the same words but they use completely different keys. So if a guy from Berlin would go sing what he usually does in Baghdad they would throw tomatoes at him because it will sound so different. We can make a whole interesting topic just on what exactly is Jewish music! Later on in the 19th century much more music developed in synagogues in Germany and in Austria, and in my opinion they were influenced by Schubert, Schumann, and classical keys, but in a way Jewish music itself has been developing the most now in the past 70 years, since the formation of israel, with the Jews having their own land. It’s very interesting to see the progress of composers like Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984) who was born in Germany; at the beginning of his career he wrote very German-like works, he wrote in this Straussian kind of way, but when he moved to Israel his style changed completely, and he began using different keys and Yemeni styles of music and these different rhythms. Jewish music is a big thing – Daniel can elaborate much more on that.
DG I have worked with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich now for 16 years and the idea when we started was never to play Jewish music; the idea was to find different Jewish cultural or religious elements and to speak about these elements through music. It’s the same with the Mendelssohns – they spoke through music. It’s interesting, this family: their grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was one of the most important Jewish philosophers – he was really Jewish – and his sons founded this bank, they were businessmen, they wanted to make business, and they knew as Jews: “We can’t make business as we are.” So assimilation was important for them, for their business, for continuing their business. I think this is the interesting thing behind the Mendelssohn family; it’s not about how Jewish they were, or how Jewish their music is – I don’t know. In terms of someone like Zemlinsky, I recorded a CD with his music, and he was raised in a very Jewish household, but his music is, I think, not Jewish at all…
CR I agree, there’s nothing Jewish about Zemlinsky!
DG …but he was raised Orthodox-Sephardic Jewish.
A cornerstone of the Jewish Chamber Orchestra of Munich is education – where does this album fit within those initiatives?
DG I always say there is the singer projects, like this, I can’t say where it exactly fits, but all the work we are doing, all the concerts we are doing, is telling something about Jewish culture and Jewish religion, and yes, I would answer your question, it’s this story of assimilation in Germany and Jewish life in Germany. People don’t know anything about Jewish history and culture and religion, they only know about the Holocaust. In Munich there is a community centre right in the centre of the city but it’s closed, the synagogue is not an open place like a church, you can’t go in, so people don’t meet Jews, and that’s what I try to break down, through this orchestra, so people have an easier way; they attend our concerts and find differing aspects of Jewish life here. Now that we are about to perform these pieces in a concert in two weeks in Munich, I will speak about all of this, and about the Mendelssohn family, as part of a short intro before the concert. Again, it’s an aspect I enjoy speaking about and telling the audience about, and I think that’s the work. It’s like little mosaics: there’s always a new piece, so to say, to explain to an audience.
Portrait of Fanny Hensel, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim; 1842, oil on canvas. Jewish Museum of New York.
How do the songs change live, and your understanding of them?
CR We were very fortunate when we performed the songs initially, we already had an audience. It wasn’t full because we were allowed 50% back then, but we had an audience, so we tested some of these songs on the public. Musically, when I prepare for a concert or the recording I prepare the same way, and I always think how can I serve with my voice, with my imagination, to serve the music the best way, so it’s not like I prepare any differently, whether the audience is there or not. But magic happens when the audience is there and I have my favourite songs, but there are other songs the audience likes more, so it’s always a surprise in that sense, but I can’t say I prepare differently.
To elaborate on the question before and what Daniel said about assimilation, there was a lot of intermarriage and conversion in Germany, and this is so interesting. In reading about Mahler and Mendelssohn, they felt they couldn’t keep their religion to be successful in business – or in the case of Mahler he felt he couldn’t keep it if he wanted to get a certain post – so both of them felt they had to convert. It’s important for us today to realize how much we advanced in human rights, in rights of women, in the right to keep your own religion and to feel safe in to say, “I am a Jew, I am a Muslim, I can do what I want” – or, we aim for this situation. I live in England, and my kids go to school here, and they don’t hide that they are Jewish. For the generation of my grandparents in Hungary, they could not openly talk about their Judaism – back then, Jews could not hold certain posts, only because they were Jews. And it’s important not to forget that. But this is what I love about the orchestra and our project: it shows how much Jews contributed to culture in Germany, and in Europe overall, and the extent to which Jewish people played a key role in cultural life in Germany.
Photo: Stefan Randlkofer
So there’s a personal relationship of sorts with Hensel’s work?
CR Yes, I feel so committed to promote her music, because it’s great music but also, the fact she was a woman. You know, my daughter plays the piano, she uses those graded exam books, and right now she’s in book 2; I looked at the composers they put in, and at least 50% of these little pcs are written by female composers. I bet you even ten years ago it was not like that. So I think there is much more awareness today to giving female composers a voice – and maybe we are helping with that a bit.
In 2003, at the very the beginning of the Second Iraq War, my mother and I had gone out for a meal and when we came home, she poured us glasses of whiskey, and put on an old recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo. (The 1983 Metropolitan Opera production featuring Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni, to be precise.) I don’t remember what was said in turning it on, but I remember the look on her face after the First Act. “We’re going to wake up tomorrow and a bunch of people we don’t know are going to be dead,” she said, sighing softly. I’d been feeling guilty all night, and kept wiping tears away; it was hard to concentrate on anything. She knew I was upset and didn’t know what to do. “Listen to the music,” she said, patting my hand, “there is still good in the world, even if it’s hard to find. Just listen.” With that, she poured us more whiskey, and held my hand. I kept crying, but I took her advice.
The war in Ukraine broke out a day after I spoke with baritone Etienne Dupuis. I seriously questioned if this might be my penultimate artist interview, my conclusion to writing about music and culture. It was difficult to feel my work had any value or merit. Last week I wrote something to clarify my thoughts and perhaps offer a smidge of insight into an industry in tumult, but my goodness, never did my efforts feel more absurd or futile. Away from the noise of TV and the glare of electronic screens, there was only snow falling quietly out the window, an eerie silence, the yellow glare of a streetlight, empty, yawning tree branches. Memory, despite its recent (and horrifying) revisionism, becomes a source of contemplation, and perhaps gentle guidance. I thought of that moment with my mother, and I switched on Don Carlo once more. Music and words, together, are beautiful, powerful, potent, as opera reminds us. These feelings can sometimes be heightened (deepened, broadened) through translation, a fact which was highlighted with startling clarity earlier this week during an online poetry event featuring Ukrainian poets and their translators. American supporters included LA Review Of Books Editor and writer/translator Boris Dralyuk and writer/activist/Georgetown Professor Carolyn Forché, both of whom gave very affecting readings alongside Ukrainian artists. (I cried again, sans the whiskey.) The event was a needed reminder of art’s visceral power, of the significance of crossing borders in language, culture, experience, and understanding, to move past the images on DW and CNN and the angry messages thrown across social media platforms like ping-pong balls, to sink one’s self into sound, life, experience, a feeling of community and essential goodness, little things that feel so far. The reading – its participants, their words, their voices, their faces, their eyes – was needed, beautiful; the collective energy of its participants (their community, that thing I have so been missing, for so long) helped to restore my faith, however delicately, in my own abilities to articulate and offer something, however small. I don’t know if music makes a difference; context matters so much, more than ever, alongside self-awareness. Am I doing this for me, or for others? I push against the idea of music as a magically “unifying” power, unless (this is a big “unless”) the word we all need to understand – empathy – is consciously applied. Empathy does not erase linguistic, regional, cultural, and socio-religious borders, but it does require the exercise of individual imagination, to imagine one’s self as another; in that act is triggered the human capacity for understanding. Translation is thus a living symbol of empathy and imagination combined, in real, actionable form – and that has tremendous implications for opera.
On February 28, 2022, The Metropolitan Opera opened its first French-language presentation of Don Carlo (called Don Carlos). Premiered in Paris in 1867, composer Giuseppe Verdi continued to work on the score for another two decades, and the Italian-language version has become standard across many houses. Based on the historical tragedy by German writer Friedrich Schiller and revolving around intrigues in the Spanish court of Philip II, the work is a sprawling piece of socio-political examination of the nature of power, love, family, aging, and the levers controlling them all, within intimate and epic spaces. The work’s innate timeliness was noted by Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times, who wrote in his review (1 March 2022) that it is “an opera that opens with the characters longing for an end to fierce hostilities between two neighboring nations, their civilians suffering the privations caused by the territorial delusions of a tiny few at the top.” The Met’s production, by David McVicar and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, features tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, Dupuis as his faithful friend Rodrigue (Rodrigo in the more standard Italian version), soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth de Valois, bass baritone Eric Owens as King Philippe II, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as Eboli, bass baritone John Relyea as the Grand Inquisitor, and bass Matthew Rose as a mysterious (and possibly rather significant) Monk. At the works’ opening, the cast, together with the orchestra, performed the Ukrainian national anthem, with young Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, making his company debut in a smaller role, placing hand on heart as he sang. One doesn’t only dispassionately observe the emotion here; one feels it, and that is the point – of the anthem as much as the opera. The anthem’s inclusion brought an immediacy to not only the work (or Verdi’s oeuvre more broadly), but a reminder of how the world outside the auditorium affects and shapes the reception of the one being presented inside of it. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” ? Not always. Perhaps it’s more a reminder of the need to consciously exercise empathy? One can hope.
The moment is perhaps a manifestation of the opera’s plea for recognizing the need for bridges across political, emotional, spiritual, and generational divides. There is an important religious aspect to this opera, one innately tied to questions of cultural and socio-political identities, and it is an aspect threaded into every note, including the opera’s famous aria “Dio che nell’alma infondere” (“Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” in French), which sounds heroic, but is brimming with pain; Verdi shows us the tender nature of human beings often, and well, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than here. The aria is not only a declaration of undying friendship but of a statement of intention (“Insiem vivremo, e moriremo insieme!” / “Together we shall live, and together we shall die!”). It reminds the listener of the real, human need for authentic connection in the face of the seemingly-impossible, and thus becomes a kind of declaration of spiritual and political integration. We see the divine, it implies, but only through the conscious, and conscientious, exercise of empathy with one another – a timely message indeed, and one that becomes more clear through French translation, as Woolfe noted in his review. The aria, he writes, “feels far more intimate, a cocooned moment on which the audience spies.” Translation matters, and changes (as Dupuis said to me) one’s understanding; things you thought you knew well obtain far more nuance, even (or especially) if that translation happens to be in one’s mother tongue.
Dupuis, a native of Quebec, is a regular at numerous international houses, including Wiener Staatsoper, Opéra national de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, as well as The Met. The next few months see the busy baritone reprise a favorite role, as Eugene Onegin, with the Dallas Opera, as well as sing the lead in Don Giovanni with San Francisco Opera. Over the past decade, Dupuis has worked with a range of international conductors, including Phillippe Jordan, Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Oksana Lyniv, Bertrand de Billy, Ivan Repušić, Carlo Rizzi, Paolo Carignani, Cornelius Meister, Robin Ticciati, Alain Altinoglu, and, notably, two maestros who died of COVID19: Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. It was in working with the latter maestro at Deutsche Oper in May 2015 that Dupuis met his now-wife, soprano Nicole Car, and the two have shared the stage in the same roles whence they met (as Eugene Onegin and Tatyana, respectively, from Tchaikovsky’s titular opera). Dupuis’s 2015 album, Love Blows As The Wind Blows, recorded with Quatuor Claudel-Canimex (Atma Classique), is a collection of songs from the early and mid-20th century, and demonstrates Dupuis’s vocal gifts in his delicate approach to shading and coloration, shown affectingly in composer Rejean Coallier’s song cycle based on the poetry of Sylvain Garneau.
Full of enthusiasm, refreshingly free of artiste-style pretension, and quick in offering insights and stories, Dupuis was (is) a joy to converse with; the baritone’s earthy appeal was in evidence from the start of our exchange, as he shared the reason behind his strange Zoom name (“‘Big Jerk’ is my wife’s pet name for me”). Over the course of an hour he shared his thoughts on a wide array of issues, including the influence of the pandemic on his career, the realities of opera-music coupledom, what it’s like to sing in his native language, the challenges of social media, and the need to cross borders in order to understand characters (and music, and people) in deeper, broader ways. Don Carlos will be part of The Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD series, with a broadcast on March 26th.
Congratulations on Don Carlos…
It’s beyond my greatest expectations, really….
… especially this version! When you were first approached to do it, what was your reaction?
It was a surprise! For some reason, even though my first language is French, I do get offers for Italian rep all the time. I think I have an Italianate way of singing – I’ve never given it much thought. When Paris did Don Carlo exactly the way The Met is doing it – the five-act French version, then the five-act Italian version a year later with the same staging – even though I’m French, not France-French but Quebec-French, they cast me in the Italian version. So when The Met called and said, “We want you for the French version” it was very exciting and surprising, I was able to sing it in the original, which is my original language as well.
Being in your native tongue has you changed how you approach the material, or…? Or changed your approach to Verdi overall?
There are things I think I’m better at and things I think I’m worse at! It’s important to know that David (McVicar) and Yannick (Nezet-Seguin) have together decided on a French version that has a lot of the later Italian version’s music in it – so, for example, they’re using a French version most of the time, but the duet between me and the King, or the quartet in Act 4, is the revised Italian version, in French. They worked on a version which they felt made the music and the drama the clearest possible – that’s important to establish. The creation from 1867 isn’t what people will get. But my approach in terms of the language, it’s not the vowels or language, so much as the style. So it’s really cool, I’ve always liked hybrids, even in people who come from different backgrounds, like if one person is born in one place but raised in another, for instance – I think it’s interesting. And I love the writing of Italian composers, those long, beautiful legato lines – and in this opera, with the French text, it’s especially interesting because the text fits differently than you would expect. It doesn’t necessarily fall in the obvious places, especially when it comes to stresses. Italian sings differently than when you speak it, so the music of the language is different – and that translates live. I’ve done Don Carlo five times already my last one was in December so it’s very fresh in my head
Does that give you a new awareness of Verdi’s writing, then? You said in a past interview that his is music you can “can really live in” but this seems as if it’s making you work to build that nest for living…
Oh for sure. In general – and this is very stereotypical – the Italian, and I put it in brackets, “Italian” really, it’s emotional first… like, we’re going to go to the core! It’s so big with the emotion, and the French goes more into, I want to say a sort of intelligence but I don’t mean it against the Italian! It’s that in French, the characters are in their heads, they rationalise the emotion, so they’ll say “I love you” differently, spin it in a different way. The word we use is “refinement” – there is a refinement in Italian too. I want to be clear on this: the French and Italian influence each other, but I do love singing it in French because all the nuances I’ve seen in the score, in French they make sense to me. “Why is there pianissimo in that note?”, for instance – and in French, it works, those choices really work. It changes the way the line is brought up, like, “oh, that’s why it’s that way!”
Jamie Barton as Princess Eboli and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
So is that clarifying for the understanding of your character, then?
Yes – the short answer is yes; the long answer is, it has to do a lot more with the background in the sense that now I realise what they’re really saying. Of course it is the fact I speak the language, so now I mean, I’ve always known the phrase he was saying, but in French the translation is almost exact. There are these little differences, and they give me more insight into what’s going on.
I was talking with Jamie Barton about this yesterday – we all love each other in this cast, I’d sing with them all, any day of my life, for the rest of my life – and she and I were talking about this one particular scene. It’s a very strange scene before my first aria, the French court type of music, it’s not that long. My character just gave a note to the Queen in hiding, and Eboli saw I did something, and she has all these suspicions, so then she starts talking to me about the court of France and it’s the weirdest thing; I’ve always had trouble with that scene when I did it in Italian. Why is she so intent on asking me about the court of France? I don’t see Eboli caring that much, but the answer was given to me partly by McVicar, partly by Yannick, and partly through the French version. At this very moment (Rodrigue) has been supposedly sent to France, but he’s been in Flanders the whole thing trying to defend the part of the empire he loves – it’s not just he loves it, but he wants to defend human life, and so Eboli is not in a position to say to him, “I want to know what the Queen is up to” – so she attacks me, but it’s in the form of, “How’s France?” Even though she knows I’ve not been there at all, she’s that clever. It’s why she’s so relentless. “What do women wear in France now? What is the latest rumour?” My answer is, “No one wears anything as well as you.” I’m deflecting every question. This very short two-minute scene that everyone wants to cut – it’s very rich in subtleties! And because of the French language now, I think it’s become much clearer in my mind. In the French language sarcasm is very strong, we use it all the time, so.
Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
So it’s political-cultural context, for him and for us…
Yes, exactly. Eboli is very clever, fiercely clever, she’s a force to be reckoned with, so it establishes the two characters, her and Rodrigue. They are just behind the main characters: Don Carlo and Élisabeth and the King. Eboli and Rodrigue are both in the shadows, but quickly, just in this little scene, you understand they are pulling the strings in many instances. I become the best confidant of the king and I am already the confidant of Don Carlo; Eboli is sleeping with the King ,and she is pulling the levers with Élisabeth.
So you see the mechanics of power in that scene very briefly…
In a short way, yes. It’s one of my favourite moments of the opera now. We can blame the fact that, in the past, I should’ve coached with someone who knew the opera really, really, really well, and said, “Listen this is what’s going on” – I mean, it has been said to me, but it wasn’t that clear. I knew Eboli was relentless about the court, but what is really happening? It’s really about the power struggle of these two. That dynamic is one you find the trio with Don Carlo later on – the same thing happens. It’s real people fighting for what they believe is right.
There are some who, especially after this pandemic, have felt that the return of art is a wonderful sort of escape, but to me this particular opera isn’t escapist, it’s very much of the now.
There is an inclination to think of it like this: opera can affect your everyday life – and almost any opera can. And Don Carlo definitely should be something people see. They might think, “Wow, there’s so much in today’s politics we can with this.” There are always people pulling the strings when it comes to politics. When you see someone in power do something completely crazy, this opera reminds you that there are people in the back who might have pushed those rulers to that, it’s not always, exclusively just them waking up and going, “Hey, let’s do something awful today!”
It’s interesting how the pandemic experience has changed opera artists’ approaches to familiar material, like you with Rodrigo/Rodrigue, Don Giovanni, and Onegin… is it different?
Completely, and it’s not just the roles either, but the whole career. When you jump into it – and it’s the right image, you do jump, you don’t know where it takes you – at first you have a few gigs, smaller roles and smaller houses. You ride that train for a while and if you’re lucky, like in my case, you get heard and seen by people who push you into bigger roles and houses, so that train keeps taking you this place and that, and you never stop, it becomes unrelenting: when do you have time to stop for a minute and say, “Do I still like doing this?” We have people ask us things like, what’s your dream role? And I don’t know the answer. I kind of have an idea, and I have dreams, but was it a dream to sign at The Met? No. Was it a dream to sing in a produiton like this? Yes, a million times, yes. So it’s not just “singing at The Met”, but it’s a case of asking, in what conditions do I want to sing there? To totally stop during the pandemic and think, “Do I still like doing this? How do I want to do it now?” was, for me, very important. One of the first things that happened as things went back was that I had to jump in at Vienna for Barbiere – it was a jump-in but I had three weeks of rehearsals, and it was amazing. I’d done Figaro many times and it was the most relaxed I’ve ever done it.
Yes! It was complicated and high singing, sure, but, I’m going to be serious here: I took three days after each performance to recuperate because of how much I moved around and the energy I gave. I’m older – I tried to do it like when I was 28, but I had to recuperate as the 42-year-old man that I am. People said, “but you look so young on stage!” I said, “Oh my god, I feel so tired!” Still, I was really, genuinely relaxed about it all – the role just came out of me – I just let it go! I don’t feel like my career hangs on to it, or to any other role. I don’t feel it’ll stop me from doing things; one role doesn’t stop me from the other.
You were supposed to be in Pique Dame in Paris last year.
It is an amazing opera, it’s not about the baritone at all, so it’s not like Onegin, but what I know of Lisa and Herman’s music, well, I want to see and hear that, it’s amazing! But at the same time, I am interested in the baritone version of Werther– I can say honestly, it was one of the roles I’d wanted to do – it’s not a lover, Charlotte and Werther don’t have that beautiful love story…
… neither do Onegin and Tatyana…
Exactly! It is profound, the way it’s written.
Returning to your remark about teams, you worked with two conductors who passed away from COVID, Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. What do you remember of working with them, and how did those experiences affect working with various conductors now?
With Davin, we did two productions together; he was a different type of man. I never got with his way of making music so much but there is something you feel when people you know passed away -– and he was still one of the good guys, he was still fighting for art and beauty, even if we had different ways of doing it, it doesn’t matter. With Vedernikov, I met my wife singing under him in Berlin –he was the conductor of Onegin, and she was Tatyana. At that time I was doing my first Rodrigo, and my first Onegin. I was learning those two roles together, and the first premiere of Don Carlo fell on the same day as the first day of rehearsals for Onegin; I had both roles together in my brain, and it follows me to this day. In fact, my next gig is in Dallas, singing Onegin, a week after the last performance here, so the roles are forever linked for me.
Nicole and I met in this production of Onegin with Vedernikov, and I remember looking at the cast list and seeing his name, and thinking, oh no! I was nervous, because he had been the conductor for over ten years at the Bolshoi, so Onegin and Russian music overall poured out of him. It was my first time singing in Russian, and I thought, “Oh my God, what will he say about my Russian!” But he was the nicest, most relaxed man I ever met. He had this face conducting… it wasn’t grim, he had these really big glasses going down his nose, and he was conducting, head down, very serious and thinking, and sometimes he’d give you a comment, like, “We should go fast here.” I kept worrying that, “Oh no, he’s going to say my pronunciation is terrible” but no, he was giving me the freedom, saying things like, “make sure you are with me.” He taught me so much by leaving out some things. This one day, we had this Russian coach, she was really precise – I love that, it allows me to get as close to the translation as I can – and there’s a moment, I forget the line, but she was trying to get me out of the swallowing-type sounds that sometimes come with the language, and one word she was trying to get to me be very clear on, and Vedernikov turns around and goes, “That’s all fine but but he also has to be able to sing it.”
It’s true in any language. I speak French, and this whole (current) cast of people speaks French (Sonya Yoncheva’s second language in French; she lives in Geneva) and even though there are moments where I want to turn around and go, “Be careful, it doesn’t sound clear enough” – I think, let it go, because I think, and this is from Vedernikov, you have to be able to sing it. It’s an opera. And now that he’s passed away I really remember that, more and more. I think it’s the power of death, to highlight any little bits of knowledge or experience you gain from working with and knowing these people – you cherish them and what they brought.
How much will you be thinking of that in Dallas?
Every time, of course. Especially since I’m doing it with Nicole as Tatyana!
You guys are an opera couple, but do you ever find you want to talk about non-music things?
We almost never talk about opera. We’re not together now but even if we were, we have a little boy, so we talk about that. We have projects, we’re thinking where we’ll go live next and where Noah will go to school, and depending on how many singing opportunities come our way from different opera houses – that influences where we want to be. Should we be closer to those gigs, or… ? If she sings two or three years in a specific house, then maybe we should be as close as possible there? We talk about our families, our friends – humans are what matter the most to Nicole and I. Of course we talk about random gossip too, and what people post on social media. Sometimes we chat with each other about work since we are opera-oriented but we barely sing at home, mostly because Noah hates it.
You mentioned social media – some singers I’ve spoken with have definite opinions about that. It feels like an accessory that has to be used with a lot of wisdom.
For sure, but when it comes to opera singers, I have yet to see, maybe there’s an exception, but I’ve yet to see people really going into the controversial areas, except for a few. There are ones out there who like to impart and share their own experiences and knowledge of the world of opera, and they do it in a way in which people are interested, but… I’m torn on it, because it’s not the same for anybody. This is one of those businesses where you are your own product, everything that happens to you is so unique; I can tell you things about how I feel about the operatic world and it would be different to someone else’s. So I don’t mind if they share it, every point of view is important, but there’s definitely no absolute truth to what any of them are saying. To come back to your point about social media as a tool, we’ve noticed more and more it will make someone more popular in some senses – singers have been struggling for a long time with popularity. Opera used to be mainstream, and it’s been replaced by cinema and models, like spotting an actor vs an opera singer on the street is very different – people freak out over the actor, of course! So it’s kind of like the operatic world is trying to gain back some of that popularity it once had. I mean, we’re great guests (on programs), we have good stories, we’re mostly extroverted and loud…
But most of the postings don’t convert into ticket sales…
No, but they convert into visibility. So 50,000 people may not buy tickets, but they can be anywhere in the world…
… they don’t care seeing you live or hearing your work; they just want to see you in a bikini.
Your remark about visibility reminds me of outlets who say “we don’t pay writers but we pay in exposure”…
Yes, and that’s bullshit. In the world of commerce, there’s an attitude from companies of, “We’ll pay for an ad on your page” and it can work, but as a product, we don’t behave the same way a pair of jeans does; I can’t ship myself to someone, and if I don’t fit I can’t be returned. It’s a completely different way of marketing. You can’t market people in the arts the same, and you shouldn’t.
You have had to develop relationships with various houses and have worked for years with your team to develop those relationships, but things can change too.
That’s right, and I’ve already seen part of the decline, not for me, but yes. As human beings we will go really far into something until it repeats, and crashes, and as it crashes, we do the opposite, or try something else, and we do that over and over and over again. Big companies reinvent themselves enough they can find longevity; it isn’t the same for artists. If you think of how a company like Facebook began, there was a time not that long ago, it was like, “Oh my God, my mother is on Facebook!” Now it’s like, “Oh yes, there’s my mom.” That’s become a normal thing; that’s the evolution. And along with that you start to notice other things – for instance, I posted a photo of my hairdo on Don Carlo and I got a few flirtatious comments from men, people I don’t know, and I thought, “Wow, that was just one picture!” It made me really think about what women who post certain shots must face.
Yes, and most women, me included, will use filters – it’s a purposefully curated version of self for a chosen public, not real but highly self-directed.
It’s worth remembering: a picture is not a person, and no one seems to make the distinction anymore. That extends to the theatre: you see someone onstage, and you go and meet them backstage, and you can see clearly that they’re so different — a different height, a different shape, everything, even their aura is totally different from the image you were presented with. And sometimes it’s a shock. Sure, through photoshop and airbrushing, a photo can be good, but even onstage, a person is still not the same person, or in a TV show or whatever. It’s a picture; it’s not you.
Matthew Polenzani as Don Carlos and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Top photo: Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Artists and organizations – some of them – have said plenty; others, very little. Some have chosen their words carefully, like a doe making her way through a field riddled with landmines – any step provokes angry reaction, any bent blade of grass a torrent of judgement. Some have simply not said anything at all. There are arguments in waterfalls of threads online – sometimes they break a dam, mostly they don’t. Walls remain walls. That doesn’t mean hacking at them in a real way, with real tools, isn’t important. Social media has, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, been a fascinating way to observe who uses tools, and how, and why, though these platforms (whose influence, for good and bad, ought not to be dismissed) have also provided reminders of the ease with which many organizations and figures alike can hide, obfuscate, and conceal, or alternately, promote, congratulate, posture. Sometimes though, none of those things happen, but something far deeper, better, more authentic. At present that authenticity isn’t merely nice – it’s necessary.
The Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra, currently on tour, recently engaged in a fascinating series of exchanges on their Facebook page after posting a supportive message and an actionable link (which I publicly thanked them for); the transparency of such efforts and exchanges is what the situation now demands. One hopes more organizations will follow suit, but alas, such direct expression in those other arenas is being blunted by political and economic interests, not humane and conscientious ones. The meaningful change inspired by pandemic which so many had hoped for in the classical world hasn’t totally manifest. (Some may argue with me on this, and really, go ahead; sticking to my guns.) There is a feeling, in looking at the mad race back to a crap old normal that didn’t work well for anyone not at the top, that war has magnified the compassion deficit uncovered by the pandemic a hundred-fold. People are already suffering emotional burnout, and now… now. But I’m not so sure performative hashtags are the answer. Certainly, such gestures satisfy marketing departments and board members who wish to convey concern (#concern); whatever is easiest, least risky, most theatrical, requiring lowest effort but eliciting maximum applause and maintaining the comfortable position of coolness (or victimology narratives), with the requisite grab for sexy influencer clicks, well yes, this. (I get it; take a look at my hashtags, done for clarity and indexing on the internet, but still.) I naively want to believe people are still (somehow) good, that they are not all selfish, that they will take initiative, however big or small, and not for their own sake; how I want to feel there is a willingness to risk comfort and familiarity and position, that humanity will make an effort, move beyond, give a damn – not for themselves, not for bank accounts, not for comfort or the continuance of some pretentious, capital-A form of art or some jewellry-rattling form of #fancy #night #out, but because it is simply the right thing to do. Watching numerous huge protests across the world is encouraging; people care, many of them, but I wonder how much is translating into real action, a contemplation given extra force in examining various responses within the classical world.
It is a community which has, this week, been a hodge-podge of activism, protest, confusion, awkwardness, silence, diplomacy, and carefully-worded outrage. Some, like Opernhaus Zürich, have been straight-forward: “We strongly condemn the unprecedented war of aggression on Ukraine.” The purposeful inclusion of those words (“condemn” “war” “aggression”) are incredible when seen in contrast to the approach of other houses. Clarity matters; language matters. Russian conductors Kirill Petrenko and Semyon Bychkov, have used similar clarity in their respective statements. Released through the Berlin Philharmonic, Petrenko’s note says that Putin’s “insidious attack” does indeed “violate international law.” The head of one of the world’s most famous (and storied) orchestras writing this, publicly, is noteworthy; for Petrenko (who is Jewish), music is certainly not above, nor separate, from politics. How could it be, though, considering the history and creation of so many pieces? Going further yet is Semyon Bychkov, who has written a series of strongly-worded, thoughtful responses over the past week. In one statement, he pinpoints the importance of recognizing the intersection of history, memory, conflict, and narratives, something which has been the subject of heated online discourse since the start of the war this week:
One of many signs and symbols that the country has returned to pre-Perestroika times is the dissolution of the Memorial Society founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov in 1989. Its mission was to research every single victim of repression and keep the memory of the dead alive. Through the dissolution of the Memorial on 29 December 2021 victims of repression were killed once again. This too is a form of genocide. Not in the Russian-occupied Donbas of Ukraine as Putin claims.
Earlier this week, Bychkov announced the cancellation of a planned series of concerts leading the Russian National Youth Orchestra. Rather than sticking head in the sand and stating “culture continues” he makes real the very real idea that choices during war matter; actions result in things people will, or won’t, experience directly – and this is what creates impact in a real way, an impact which morally dominates any ostrich-like, romanticized notion of what culture (specifically classical music) can or should be. Bychkov’s cancellation is not about punishment, as the St. Petersburg-born maestro explains:
I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death’.
This is not, it is worth nothing, an act meant to sow division; it is an act of solidarity that fully and openly acknowledges the central role of economics within the classical world, one rarely discussed but wholly vital, especially the impact the pandemic has had on culture. The money-meets-government factor is an element which certainly deserves scrutiny, and indeed it’s one many Russian artists have now dared to question. A strongly-worded open letter from Russian arts workers reads, in part, “Everything that has been done culturally over the past 30 years is now at risk: all international ties will be severed, cultural private or state institutions will be mothballed, partnerships with other countries will be suspended. All this will destroy the already fragile economy of Russian culture and significantly reduce its significance both for Russian society and for the international community as a whole.” So far the petition has more than 2100 signatories. I can only guess how many of those who signed are, or have been, on the streets to protest – there have been several across Russia, and thousands of people (including composer/musician Alexander Manotskov) have been detained . Several Russian cultural figures (including, rather notably, Vladimir Urin and Vladimir Spivakov) have signed an anti-war petition in which they recognize that “in each of us lives the genetic memory of war. We do not want a new war, we do not want people to lose their lives.” It may seem milquetoast in its wording, but as Meduza editor Kevin Rothrock pointed out, “many people are risking their livelihoods with this. It’s not your throwaway virtue signalling.” If art is about connection, as some have recently claimed, then the most important points in that line of connection must be financial; to disinclude them is to engage in a privileged form of willful blindness. Who can afford such a luxury now?
Moscow-based art museum Garage has released a public announcement in which they announce they are halting all of their exhibitions “until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased. We cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place.” A group of public figures, including author Vladimir Sorokin and actress Chulpan Khamatova, composer/pianist Anton Batagov, and Nobel-Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov, have added their names to another petition, which reads (in translation):
The war Russia has launched against Ukraine is a disgrace. It is OUR shame, but unfortunately, our children, the generation of very young and unborn Russians, will also have to bear responsibility for it. We do not want our children to live in an aggressor country, to feel ashamed that their army has attacked a neighbouring independent state. We call on all citizens of Russia to say NO to this war.
We do not believe that an independent Ukraine poses a threat to Russia or any other state. We do not believe Vladimir Putin’s statements that the Ukrainian people are under the rule of the “Nazis” and need to be “liberated”. We demand an end to this war!
The outrage – its reality, its clarity in expression, the risk inherent to its expression – are all very real, and witnessing it across the spectrum, in real time, has been harrowing. To be blunt: I never expected Russian artists to publicly take a stand, to venture, to risk, but when they did, I am struck (mostly) by the humanity, and the specificity of language in conveying that humanity (something I think Bychkov is especially good at capturing). That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been disagreement, defensiveness, an appalling lack of compassion. False equivalency, that pungent symbol of 21st century socio-political exchange, has been expressed by some – it reads as little more than self-interested apologism; the “what aboutisms” that come with such reactions beat on the intellect and the soul equally. Such responses were taken to task by Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who shared specific and personal details of her family history, one which is, like so many of us Eastern Europeans, threaded through with tragedy:
My already very old grand-grand-parents were deported by the Russians to Siberia during the second world war. One grand-grandfather was shot. My grandparents were robbed by Russian soldiers of home and everything. Not even being allowed to keep the shoes of their small children they had to live on the street. These are facts, not opinions.
Equally clear has been the position of music publisher Bärenreiter: “We vehemently oppose violence as well as the unfounded and unjustified aggression of one state against another, for which there is absolutely no place in cultural Europe.” They added the call to “let us all think about how we can actively support the Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price just for expressing their will to live just like us.”
Herewith are twolinks, ones I shared with Bärenreiter, which I am sharing here – not to seem saintly, not to prove anything, but merely because of a feeling of utter helplessness; I don’t know what else can be done, but to provide something which might have a real impact past numerous other tepid words and performative gestures. Perhaps my history working for Amnesty International many years ago in Dublin is making itself known; those busy days working alongside journalists covering a variety of human rights stories left its own indelible mark. Theselinks (to accredited charities) were shared with me by Ukrainian contacts, who have been pleading with their well-meaning, non-Slavic counterparts to please fucking do something! They contain real, actionable suggestions to real organizations, many of them working at ground level in Ukraine.
I don’t want to offer any grand philosophical statement about how culture “erases” borders – those borders and identities matter to people. People are fleeing across them right now; the fact they’re from a certain place matters a great deal, to them and to others. People right now are arguing about those identities, warring over them, with words and weapons equally. Culture doesn’t melt anything; music doesn’t mend anything – if anything, music has the power to rip hearts wide open, to inflame passions, to provoke strong feelings and thoughts; sometimes it should. Music isn’t always some mystical prescriptive bandage meant to heal the world – history has repeatedly taught us (or tried to teach us) that such reductive understanding doesn’t exactly work, for performers or audiences. Of course, history is largely labyrinthine; right action and its effects are not. We all experience life, and its sounds, differently – anthems, marches, symphonies, operas – births, deaths, sex, love. We all come from somewhere; sometimes we leave those places, but our hearts stay. How could they not? Sing, proclaim, protest; have a voice. Your voice matters, and will in time, I think, be less a part of the labyrinth of history than a ragged, colorful thread in a vast quilt, a piece of which we take back to our homes, someday, somehow – against our skin, hidden, but close to our hearts.
(Artwork: Tetyana Yablonska, “Life Goes On”. Oil on canvas, 1970. The National Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.)
London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of fresh ones for English National Opera (ENO)’s The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production of the Wagner Ring work, set to grace the stage of The Met in 2025.
There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. Those tales tend to follow a predictable path, and indeed Spence’s tale falls into this mould: all-night buses and anxious auditions and moving from hard-scrabble Dumfries youth to London music school, and onwards, of helping relatives and settling into a house with partner and dog when success did arrive. It’s the stuff of cliché, but sometimes the cliché is simply too correct to dismiss, and besides, the brand of success Spence is now enjoying was hard-won, because it wasn’t the sort that initially came knocking. In 2004, during his final year of school at Guildhall School of Music And Drama, Spence accepted a five-record contract with Universal Classics (Decca). He went on to make his first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award (as Young British Classical Performer Of The Year). During this time Universal/Decca had promoted him as “The Scottish Tenor”; Spence was in his early 20s at the time. When it came time to record his second album, Spence declined; back to Guildhall he went, for more intensive study of his craft. In 2009 Spence won a place at the National Opera Studio, and a year later joined ENO, as one of their inaugural Harewood Artists, where he did an equal mix of so-called “classic” opera (David in Die Meistersinger, The Novice in Billy Budd, Steva in Jenůfa) and contemporary: Spence created the role of Brian in Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera about the tragic intertwining of technology and passion based on a true story, which was subsequently staged at The Met.
Spence clearly wants to be a star, but that drive is in no way at odds with his keen musicality and theatrical instincts. An awareness of timing, texture, and technique, both vocally and physically, is evident, but Spence is smart enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (read: theatrical) reason. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence is still young, not quite 40; he’s performed on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu, Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few. He returns to working with Martyn Brabbins on The Valkyrie at ENO later this year; it seemed clear from our conversation he was both daunted and thrilled by the chance to tackle Siegmund, a role that mixes dark and light, shade and nuance, in vocal writing as much as theatrical expression. So, to simply state that the tenor specializes in “darker” repertoire is to rather miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (sometimes dirty, ugly) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t diminish the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven (whose works can be every bit as chewy – Spence has performed them also), much less the work of contemporary composers, which Spence has admitted he would like to perform more often. Taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the infusion of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), George Steiner ponders this equation of rare and special matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:
Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.
I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.
There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the Songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.
Complementing the hectic scheduling of an opera world that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) is Spence’s bubbly style. In his conversation with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently, he says, “I found this gift, I guess, it was like a superpower, really.” No longer The Scottish Tenor; now, perhaps, Super-Siegmund-Tenor, Spence’s past life filters into his present one: the pauses as much as the tones, the phrasing choices, the dynamic choices; the smell of hay, grass, and sea; the fumes of black cabs, the perennial buzzing of St. Martin’s Lane; everything informs Spence’s sound. Such authenticity makes his performances special, and memorable, events.
Photo: Ryan Buchanan
How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?
Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!
What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?
It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.
I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.
They’re both outsiders.
Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.
… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?
I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.
His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?
I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.
So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?
The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…
What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?
I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…
… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?
Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.
Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.
You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.
For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I ledmasterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.
Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.
Well it’s important to be real.
Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…
There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.
In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epic nature of Wagner’s writing…
… yes it is…
… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?
Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling – they are epic tales! – The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day, and that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.
What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?
I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.
That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?
Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and,La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.
Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.
Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”
So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?
It’s a perfect balance.
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It is difficult, if not impossible, to express anything meaningful in relation to the death of director Sir Graham Vick. Tributes are filling social media, many written by artists with whom the 67-year-old CBE-honoree worked throughout his illustrious four-decade-plus career, and amidst them, palpable veins of grief and anger, cries of “too soon” (Vick died of complications from coronavirus) and heartbreaking expressions of bewilderment. Imagining the opera landscape without Vick’s voice, literally and figuratively, is a very strange endeavour. To say he changed the centre of opera-theatrical gravity is putting things too mildly; he changed the entire universe, and many would argue, for the better.
Vick was a strident believer in opera being an art form for everyone, and was a champion of experimentation, risk, and diversity. Named director of productions for Scottish Opera in 1984, Vick went on to Glyndebourne, where he was director of productions from 1994 to 2000. He founded Birmingham Opera in 1987 and remained its artistic director. He helmed the works of Shostakovich, Britten, Wagner, Mozart, Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, Schoenberg, Rossini, and Prokofiev; he collaborated with a number of contemporary composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Ravi Shankar, Jonathan Dove, Stephen Oliver, and Georg Friedrich Haas, and had several projects planned (including production of new commissions) across the U.K. and Europe. To say he was modern is too cliched; to say he will be forgotten is impossible. The recollection of seeing – nay, experiencing – his work live now, at a time when so much of the live experience has been shuttered and is dictated by perceptions deeming opera elite, irrelevant, a frill, a fringe, a frippery, is to recall the work of a man who not only knew better, but proved it.
In 2017 I had intended to interview Vick about his award-winning production of Stiffelio at the Festival Verdi in Parma. That conversation unfortunately never took place (alas, poor timing), but I will always remember walking slowly away from the Teatro Farnese one warm night in October feeling as if I was seeing the world with entirely new eyes; the dim street lights that outlined the jumbles of boys gathered on street corners, the shouting, the darts back and forth to groups of girls, the hand-holding couples, the older woman stopping and starting along one wall, catching her breath… everything was familiar, strange, distant, immediate. Good theatre is meant to have this effect, of genuinely changing one’s perceptions and experiences of life outside of the theatre proper (I think), of cultivating curiosity and encouraging some form of empathy (or maybe “observation” is a more appropriate term here, considering Vick’s staging) – my experience of such art, of such direct and unfiltered theatrical approach, had been rather limited up to that point, and in the case of opera, I’d become inured to blithely sitting and gawking in silky finery, my senses more attuned to the orchestra and the voices; my expectations had, with very few exceptions, been unconsciously lowered around visuals and visceral understanding, an experience I only became aware of through the direct immersion (quite literally) in Vick’s production. His vision, as with so much of his oeuvre, demanded immediacy, contemplation, interaction, even (sometimes) direct engagement – with words, music, sounds, action… feelings. His stagings weren’t lessons (nor were they meant as such) but were very often challenges – to whatever baggage we may have brought, consciously and not. Stiffelio forced me to throw out that baggage, to set it alight; as the daughter of a confirmed Verdi lover, Vick’s intentionally confrontational production was not the medicine I necessarily wanted at the time, but was precisely the dosing rather desperately needed, and at some unconscious level, deeply desired.
This year’s edition of Festival Verdi will be dedicated to Vick’s memory; it opens on September 24th with a production of Un Ballo in Maschera, helmed by director Jacopo Spirei and based on an original project by Vick. The administrative and artistic teams at the Teatro Regio di Parma and Festival Verdi (including General Director/Artistic Director Ana Maria Meo and Music Director Roberto Abbado) stated in a formal release that “(t)he world of music and theatre loses an artist with a sharp eye, extraordinary sensitivity, attention to young talent, the ability to bring to light the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of our lives on the notes of scores written centuries ago, the ability to discover opera and make it loved by the broadest communities far from the world of culture, highlighting the values, feelings, and themes that bind it so closely to our contemporary world, our everyday life.”
Mille grazie, Graham, per tutto. x
Graham Vick rehearsing Stiffelio in 2017. Photo: Roberto Ricci / Teatro Regio di Parma
“The aim is to have people not be prejudiced about the word (“opera”), to not change the word… isn’t that the job, really? I mean, Luciano Berio, he called the first one I did, Un re in ascolto (A King Listening), he called it a “musical action”… (and) in the late 20th century, everybody was trying to find a new label, (everybody) was experimenting with non-narrative opera […] but there’s nothing wrong with opera. Opera has this incredibly rich, 400-year history, and the only thing wrong with the word is the prejudice.”
“I believe that opera is its own art form, and it’s a huge art form, but it’s based on singing; that’s where its expressive heart is, is in singing. And the sung word, the human voice, is the most natural. When someone is singing good and open and in touch with themselves, (it) is the most immediate conduit to the human soul.”
“Everybody wants the star delivering the material… and that is fundamentally anti-theatric. It means, in fact, they perform their brand – in modern parlance – […] and so you might begin – here I’m being very rude, but I’ll say it anyway – you might begin by thinking The New Tenor is really interesting and fascinating, then by his fourth or fifth role you’re beginning to say, “It’s a little bit stuck and mannered” and eventually you’ll think, “That’s all he’s got to offer”… but it’s saleable, it’s packageable, because it’s a groove that sells recordings, that goes with someone who’s found his public. Many people fall into this rather disappointingly narrow track. The liberation of singing, the fact it should go all the way through the whole of your persona, the whole of your physical and psychic persona… the sound should resonate through it all… the people who are capable of living and communicating through that sound are the true high priests and priestesses of the art form.”
“There’s no substitute for understanding the words.” (referring to the English translation of operas)
“You can get the chorus of La Scala to do the most phenomenal mezzo-voce/mezzo-piano in the middle register – magic, like you’ve never heard. And that’s utterly beautiful. But if you want to hear the voice of the Russian people crying in despair and anger about religion and about politics, if you hear what we do in Birmingham, it speaks an entirely different way: devoid of polish, devoid of sophistication, devoid of training, but direct from the soul, direct from the heart, and meaning being 100% what they’re doing, not meaning via technique, via beauty, via sound, via keeping-everybody-else-happy. It’s unique. And that is a different way to deliver art. Prosciutto crudo, not prosciutto cotto.”
“The mess of opera and this pandemic is, of course, enormous, because not only the pandemic but with, of course, Black Lives Matter, and what’s happened this year, and so really for the first time a lot of people are finally taking diversity as a serious issue… but not really, of course, because they’re not really doing their proper work at the moment, they’re doing small projects, (with) small audiences. So it’s quite easy to change the apparent face very quickly. The truth is, when we come out (of the pandemic), we’ve now discovered – I believe everybody has now discovered, what we’ve always known in Birmingham – which is, we should be performing for the whole city; that’s what our work is and for, but our tickets cost £17.50, for everybody […] that gives us a completely different audience. I read statements on the websites of theatres, policies about equal opportunity and so on, but I don’t think we can fool ourselves that there is any possibility of any kind of equality, any kind of cultural democracy, unless people can afford to buy a ticket. And I think that is going to be an enormous problem, because the money is tight.”
“We have to include a much broader community in what we produce, in how we produce it, in how we communicate its truths, and in who we put on our stages, in our pits, in our choruses, in who you see around you in the audience – all of this has to change in order (for opera) to have any validity. But I don’t see, at the moment, any artists leading that charge. And I think it has to be an artistic charge.”
“What happens is, gifted, talented people start(ing) off initially as angry as me get sucked into this amazing thing that is opera – this big, soupy glorious, glamorous, thrilling world – and they lose their judgement. They lose their social and political judgement, and turn their back on where they came from. So that’s the message for you all, and what I want to say: be true to yourselves. Because the world has to be changed.”
“There are many, many ways of defining the word “excellence”.”
Top photo: Graham Vick at Festival Verdi rehearsing Stiffelio in 2017. Photo: Roberto Ricci / Teatro Regio di Parma