In this section, you will find written items which have appeared on this website over the past few years, pieces which pertain specifically to classical music, to art, to history, and to various concomitant functions, issues, and pertinent questions combining all three. I have also provided links to recent personal works, which have been published at other sources. These latter essays do not specifically concern classical music but they do touch on current issues (sports, for instance), pop culture (cinema), and personal family history (like the passing of my mother). Expect more to be added through the coming months; there is a considerable archive to be combed through, with some light (or heavy) editing involved!
This Essays section was added to convey a breadth of writing style and ability, dedication to my craft in its various facets, and frankly, because I’ve been told I “have a gift for telling a damn good story.” Do I? You be the judge. Hopefully the sharing of these works will not affect perceptions relating to how I approach my work and interviews at this website, or outside the purview of this site, within my professional pursuits. My intention is to convey the range of human experience which, all too often, the over-filtered, hyper-curated, unreal digital world either papers over, or has no interest in engaging with. This is another view that, while not strictly within the classical realm, has nonetheless been highly shaped by it. I hope you will enjoy, and I welcome your feedback.
The ruins of Dresden at the end of the Second World War. Photo: Deutsche Fotothek, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7937338
One of the more engaging works I’ve read this summer concerns a seemingly-crusty topic, albeit with a very soft core: the music of the GDR (or German Democratic Republic), specifically mourning music, and the ways in which that music and its composers are remembered – or not. Founded in 1949 and dissolved in 1990, East Germany is, at least in the some quarters, very often associated with cartoonish images, frequently manifest in the form of glowering villains in grey suits and/or leather coats, breezily presented in Western popular media throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even into the 1990s. At the other end of the spectrum, the rising tide of ostalgie has made it equally hard to gain a proper picture, with the GDR’s more unsavoury elements glossed over in the name of sentimentality. Having an interest in GDR-born composers myself (Georg Katzer (1935-2019) and Paul Dessau (1894-1979) among them), it seemed like some form of fate to come across Martha Sprigge’s Socialist Laments; Musical Mourning in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford University Press, 2021) earlier this summer. Surveying various aspects of musical expression in post-WWII Germany (theoretical, practical, political, social, historical) and their intersections, Sprigge, who is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, presents a fascinating portrait of specific creative expression, and its performative manifestations, amidst the time before, during, and after (however briefly) the time of the Berlin Wall. It paints a multilayered portrait of a time, place, and people that is at once difficult and diffuse, but just as equally heart-rending and human. Also, rather refreshingly, the book comes with its very own playlist, complete with performance suggestions, in its opening pages.
Organized not solely via strict historical chronology (the end of the Second World War and onwards through the socialist era), Socialist Laments is driven by memory – its perceptions, presentations, manifestations, and, by the actual act of remembering itself: the meaning, in micro and macro ways, in post-war, post-communist, and ever-creative senses. The idea of ruin, literal as much as figurative, casts a defining shadow throughout the book, past its opening explorations of the bombing of Dresden and related figures whose works had resonance in post-war times (among them choral conductor/composer Rudolf Mauersberger and his Dresdner Requiem from 1961), concentration camp memorials (including Tilo Medek’s controversial Kindermesse zum Gedenken der im Dritten Reich ermordeten Kinder / In Memory of of the Children Murdered in the Third Reich, 1974), Soviet influence (the apparent appropriation of the Russian funerary hymn “Immortal Victims” being but one example), the role and continuing function of the Kreuzchor in religious and cultural life, as well as anti-fascist expressions of the 1960s and 1970s, with reference made to the works of Dessau and Katzer among others – many of whom, as Sprigge notes, “often had memories of the wartime years that presented direct conflicts with the country’s official narratives.”
Sprigge opens the book with a remembrance of her visit with the widow of composer Reiner Bredemeyer (1929-1995), who had the names of her husband’s compositions carved into his gravestone, which is situated at Pankow III along with a number of celebrated German cultural figures, singer/actor Ernst Busch (1900–1980) and conductor Kurt Sanderling (19192-2011) among them. Understanding the place of Bredemeyer, and his GDR colleagues, in the wider spectrum of the GDR’s music world is less about convenient placement of puzzle pieces that might fit current post-reunification narratives, and far more about experimentation with new ingredients in a varied stew; you may not entirely recognize the end result, but you will understand, nay appreciate, the level of creativity and labour that went into its creation. Thus is the Freudian conception of Trauerarbeit (or work of mourning) manifest in ways that move beyond simple sentimental and/or melancholy definitions, and into a more varied, thought-provoking, and nuanced take on German cultural history and its contemporary echoes, or a distinct lack thereof. How often do we hear the works of Dessau, Bredemeyer, Biermann, Dessau, Katzer, after all? With incredible attention to detail, a scholarly approach to analyses, and a clear love of the composers and their respective works across 300+ pages, Socialist Laments underlines the importance of an ever-evolving history that deserves to be – quite literally – heard and experienced. Is it a kind of advocacy? Perhaps, and perhaps that’s overdue. The book, published in mid-2021, joins a growing body of literature which looks at the work of a multifaceted era, and its people, in ways that bust out the old, Western-influenced clichés of humorless, grey grimness and show the ways in which meaning, mourning, and moving on, helped shape not only late 20th century Germany but modern Europe. It’s worth keeping in mind as the music world slowly reopens amidst coronavirus restrictions, and, to use a hoary old term, “reimagines” itself; the composers of the GDR understood this act very well, and the classical music world now, and its fans, would do well to remember such expressions and perhaps ask more from organizations, programmers, and most especially, themselves.
Professor Sprigge and I spoke in early July 2021.
Why did you focus on mourning and the music associated with it? You outline some academic motivations in the book but I’m curious about personal instincts.
This is a great question that I love answering! As you mention, I give a more academic explanation in the intro to the book, but there are a few more experiential reasons for choosing the lens of mourning to approach East German music culture. Musically, I’ve had a slightly morbid fascination with mourning music for a while, possibly longer than I realized. When I first started working on this project I was chatting with an old friend from high school, who reminded me of the number of requiems and choral mourning works we sang in the choir we were both in growing up – she joked that I must have really taken those experiences to heart! I suspect my personal experience of singing and playing mourning music might not be all that unique; memorial customs are everywhere in Western art music customs, though we might not always consciously be paying attention to the relationship between a generic title – for example, Requiem, Epitaph, Elegy, or a dedication, (like Schumann’s piano piece “Remembrance,” which was written the day Mendelssohn died) and the mourning rituals that lie behind them when we listen to or play these pieces. But sometimes we are (consciously paying attention), and I wanted to explore these customs and their continued use in more depth, especially in 20th century Europe, or after WWI and WWII specifically), when both the musical languages and the subjects of mourning were dramatically transformed.
In terms of the historical time period, I was struck by the disconnect I felt when I first read/heard about the GDR in (admittedly Western) texts, compared to the emotional impact that many of the sites of the former GDR had when I first visited them (and in the time since). The texts seemed to present East Germany as incredibly restrictive, especially in terms of emotional expression, while the sites I visited were sites of so many insurmountable losses, from wartime monuments to former concentration camps, that would seem to prompt an emotional response. I thought that looking at music would be a way in to exploring the various tensions surrounding expression in East Germany, not least because commemorative practices – and music – were so central to the cultural life of the GDR.
So how did this project actually begin?
Around 2005-2006, you could take a history class about the 20th century, and you’d learn all this political stuff; then you’d take a music class about the 20th century, and you’d learn about these seemingly very detached things – but I realized, in taking them in university, that they are closer together than one might’ve thought they’d be. These elements of history are not just political, or apolicial, not strictly one thing, or another; there’s messiness there. And I like messiness.
How do you go about capturing aspects of that messiness, or did you feel you had to clean some of it up yourself?
I guess, I got into this topic through the music and related places, and so in that way, it comes through in my organization of the book, it’s like, places and music are interlinked, very much. I had started from that perspective of, “This music is interesting; these places are interesting” – they reveal all these multiple histories if you sit and pay attention, or walk and pay attention – and as I read more, I realized that there was something more to that than just me liking going on walks and listening to music; there’s something one can do if one takes a very site-specific approach to an historical topic that kind of mirrors a piece-specific approach to an individual work. I broadened it out from there.
Did you intend for the introduction to feature Bredemeyer’s widow, or did the idea come later?
That was after I met her. She is such a generous woman; we sat and talked for long periods of time. I was a grad student at the time, and I mean… who does that?! Who invites you into her home and lets you converse about this time period in such a way? I’m not even German! But that level of generosity stuck with me. And as I worked through this book and thought about what to do next, it occurred to me that this is a central part of the story; these women – it’s usually women – have spent years collecting their husbands’ works and figuring out what to do with them, they’re telling these specific histories in how they archive. So yes, I remember, I left that conversation and I did not actually know about Bredemeyer’s grave until I spent that time with her, after that, I went and found the grave the next day. In the first draft of everything ,which was my dissertation, this meeting with her was at the end, but as soon as I reworked the material into a book, I thought, “This meeting needs to go at the beginning, and it can broaden out from there.”
Such generosity points to a humanity that I think is very often ignored or taken for granted in the history of the GDR in terms of how the West thinks of it…
That’s very true.
… and that notion-busting extends to gender also. I love the observation you make about how gender parity under communism was every bit as performative as elements of commemoration; I wonder if there’s a companion book to be written on that topic.
Funnily enough, that’s what I’m hoping to do next!
Yes! There’s something about it though – and, the longer you stay in this particular world, the more ideas you get to write about. I think the music… the longer I stay in this field, the more I feel there’s a lot more that can be said, not just about composers who identify as women and how they navigated it all, but the much broader set of activities that took place to make the musical world work for them, and their partners, under that system.
That’s part of the nuance which is so palpable, along with the references to the Soviet Union. How challenging was it to navigate that element? I ask this as someone who interviewed Marina Frolova-Walker, whose work you also reference in your book.
That’s a good question – funnily enough, I read your interview with Marina this morning! Well, the Russian thing… I think especially now, Shostakovich is getting programmed significantly more often than most other Russian composers, especially the next generation – I mean, nobody’s running to tell you about Edison Denisov…
Sure, but there is a common frame of reference that a lot of Western audiences and musicological audiences have, and in some ways I could rely on the fact that the audience probably already know a fair amount, or have a fair amount of ideas, about the music of the Soviet Union, so I figured, with good footnotes and recognition, I could imply the realization that, “Yes, I know you want to know about Shostakovich right now, so here you go; here’s the formal reference” – but the other, thornier question, in terms of thinking about the field of musicology, or how people thought about artistic practise in the Cold War, for far too long… it was so very Soviet Union-focused. So some of what I was doing was building on the work of other scholars who have taken this very interesting era and explored how yes, the Soviet Union was hugely influential on East Germany, but the musical life there looked, and sounded, different. And that is significant.
Photo: Eric Isaacs
How much do you think the current interest is fuelled by “ostalgie”?
Oh for sure, a good chunk of it, there’s no question. I got into this field right around the time of the 20th to 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You’d go to these conferences (2010-2015) and there would be a certain generation of people saying, “Well I went to East Germany and it felt like this” and “I remember life was like that.” You know, this past week I came across a list of movies that were meant to help you understand the GDR but none of them were actually by East German film artists… so, I mean, people are intrigued by this era and place, because they have this idea of what East Germany was.
One that has been largely shaped by Western ideas, as you noted.
Yes, that’s right.
But the sense of nostalgia within Eastern cultural expression is also significant; the interplay between nostalgia and reality, sentimentality and authentic expression, seems especially relevant to contemporary programming. Why do you think the work of East German composers isn’t programmed more often? There was a production of Dessau’s opera Lanzelot (1969) in Erfurt and Weimar) in 2019, but that seemed unique.
I think the reasons might’ve shifted – it was always multifaceted, why they were or weren’t heard. In the 1990s, there is ample evidence to indicate that yes, Western intellectuals took over former East German institutions for reasons which were based on completely discrediting Marxist thought; for a peek into that kind of world, Anna Saunders and Debbie Pinfold have this great book (Remembering And Rethinking the GDR, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013) demonstrating this sort of effect in various areas of the arts and culture and in universities, with some of the essays (“Reflective Nostalgia and Diasporic Memory: Composing East Germany After 1989“, Elaine Kelly) exploring the cultural atmosphere of the early 1990s in that vein. Bredemeyer himself commented on this issue as well; he said he felt like his works were being shaken off, that the perspectives this generation of composers had grown up with had suddenly been discredited. And, I think there’s this other dimension, which is more connected to new music writ large, and that is… it’s hard to get programmed. A lot of composers are continually and justifiably complaining about this or, if not complaining, aware that it is a system where only a few people get programmed again and again and again, and there is this broader movement which is not necessarily linked to the collapse of communism. Also, yes, the new music world is modelled on a world that is almost a century older now.
That makes generational divides all the more stark, and also brings up some very timely ideas around funding, especially in the post-Covid cultural landscape, or whatever we’re in now…
How much did those elements – intergenerational, financial – come into play as you were researching and writing?
One of the things I realized I had to do at some point in this project, for my own sanity, and also to do justice to that messiness I referenced without making it a free-for-all, is that I had to focus on a certain generation that had come of age, or a couple of generations, that came of age during WWII and then came into the GDR as fully grown adults, versus those born during the war, and then those born in the GDR and after – I just don’t know enough about the more contemporary ones to comment. I’ve been tangentially following this third-generation group who were children when the GDR collapsed, or are first-generation and born in reunified Germany, but may well have parents from the East, and they’re adults now, doing various creative things – I just haven’t followed them as much. I think there is that dimension of how much people are holding onto stuff from the past, compared to how much those elements they think of with so much nostalgia have, in fact, morphed into totally different things. Like the element you mentioned about levels of state support – that’s also been fused into this whole idea of, ‘where do you go to get your works performed?’ – which I think is very valid right now. Europe seems to support musicians more than the U.S., for sure.
Indeed, and North Americans never get to hear the work of people like Bredemeyer or Dessau performed live as a result, because programming them is perceived as too risky. Do you think in our current pandemic era we might start to appreciate these artists, people who wrote through their own difficult times?
Possibly. I finished this book right as Covid started, which I wrote about in the intro, and I was thinking, “What on earth is going on? I have to finish this book!” So that opening chapter is colored by that whole initial experience, but throughout the book some of the examples I was working with made me think about motivation in multiple ways, and in slightly different ways – there’s this kind of potential therapeutic element of, “This is my response to this situation; this is what I do. I’m a musician: if something happens, I’m going to respond through music” – so I think it is possible that composers and audiences may turn back to, and look for, these moments of mourning in sound. There was this article at the beginning of the whole thing I saw, about music during the plague, the Renaissance, about it being repurposed and in thinking about that today, it’s possible that would happen now, but I can also imagine… I don’t know what format it would take, whether it would be a composer turning back to previous examples and pondering how that would help them work through things. Speaking for myself, I love work that changes the way I listen to and comprehend other music. To give you an example, I’m struck by Mauersberger’s turn to Schutz; at first my reaction was, “Well of course, it’s Dresden!” – I studied Schutz as an undergrad with a scholar of his work, but then I thought, “Hold on a second, Schutz and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); Schutz and all the religion issues” – there were lots of potential layers.
So yes, it would be really interesting and intriguing if audiences did turn back to music, maybe GDR music, and, this sounds twee, but to music that fully represents this current time of need. I can also see that taking different forms; for instance, Courtney Bryan recently had the premiere of her Requiem in Chicago, which was postponed from before this whole thing, but the work takes on a new meaning now. The form is still there, but musicians are adapting and making such works fit to the present, which seems very similar to what the composers I studied were doing.
Some may look at your askance for not being European and doing this; how much do you think being a kind of cultural outsider helped or hindered your writing and understanding?
I think there’s been so much attention and work and really rich stuff written about East Germany, and the arts in East Germany, over the past decade or so, so it’s not just one book everybody’s turning back to anymore, or one person; it’s not like, ‘if you read German then you definitely read this person; if you read English, you definitely read this person’ – no, it’s a bunch of people. There’s this rich, very engaging dialogue taking place now. So I don’t think I’d feel comfortable writing this if I wasn’t in dialogue with that larger community. We need both perspectives, from insiders and outsiders; it’s the only way to form something approaching a complete picture.
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“There is a way to say something,” my mother used to remark, “a way you have to learn.” The best form of written and spoken expression, that is, combines elegance and honesty. This matters greatly if you hope to have people do as you wish, in the way you want them to, while still holding your own. It is an art which is in ever-evolving states of evolution in my own life.
For Helmut Deutsch, however, such an integration is a way of being, on stage and off. One of the most acclaimed lieder pianists of our time, Deutsch combines bluntness and a distinct, and it could be argued, old-world Viennese elegance, to his approach to the art-work-life trinity, and most wonderfully expressed in Memoirs Of An Accompanist (Kahn & Averill), published in English last year. The memoir was first published in 2019, in German, as Gesang auf Händen tragen: Mein Leben als Liedbegleiter (Henschel Verlag), a perfect title for a musician who indeed has the gift of carrying song as if made, alternately, of solid iron and the most delicate glass; knowing which touch to use when is a great part of Deutsch’s mastery. In a celebrated career spanning over five decades, Deutsch has honed his reputation of being one of the most intuitive and artful of pianists, a full partner to vocalizing cohorts in manifesting the meaning of the words which ground much of the work, and the sounds between and around them which allow such works flight.
A great many things have been written about Deutsch and his work, but since our chat last month, I have found myself, like Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos, stymied for such words. What could possibly be written to capture such artistry? To listen is, as ever, simultaneously instructive and daunting; one is reminded, through the poetry of words and sounds, of the value of sitting in a place where silence is the only appropriate response. Indeed, I am a fan of lieder (as my past work probably demonstrates), and I am a writer, and I am a piano player (or was, and hopefully will be again soon); it is nevertheless impossible to parse the threads of these identities in experiencing the works of Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, Wolf, Brahms, Mahler (plus that of Goethe, Müller, Heine, Heyse, Morgenstern, Bethge) so intuitively performed. Such are the moments when intellect, instinct, and rather powerfully, curiosity, all magically, quietly meet. The pandemic era has forced one to make choices relating to the conscious endowment of attention; lieder has always placed large demands in this area, but the current times of forced isolation have allowed, at least on my own part, an even greater level of received power. There are no other breathing, coughing bodies to mediate reception of the artform – for good and for ill – but this directs and controls intensity of directed attention in ways I hadn’t quite expected; it’s made me listen to lieder in ways I could have never predicted, and deepened an ardent love, if also enforced occasional (if perhaps needed) distance from the quotidian. I can no longer put on Italienisches Liederbuch, for instance, without expecting to have the rest of the day vanish.
Deutsch’s meticulous attention to phrasing, his instinctual approach with singers, and his unforced musicality render such musical experiences deeper and broader, but simultaneously closer, more intimate. To listen to his work is to feel he is playing just for you, whether in a small space like a recording studio, or the vast expanse of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Listen to the clip below with Jonas Kaufmann (from December 2020), taped at that very spot; I had to sit in silence a full fifteen minutes after hearing it for the second, third, fourth times. This is artistry which requires concentration, consideration, digestion, and calls to mind the words of George Steiner, who wrote in Real Presences (Faber & Faber, 1989):
In a wholly fundamental, pragmatic sense, the poem, the statue, the sonata are not so much read, viewed or heard as they are lived. The encounter with the aesthetic is, together with certain modes of religious and of metaphysical experience, the most ‘ingressive’, transformative summons available to human experiencing. Again, the shorthand image is that of an Annunciation, of “a terrible beauty” or gravity breaking into the small house of our cautionary being. If we have heard rightly the wing-beat and provocation of that visit, the house is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before.
Perhaps, I can only add, it shouldn’t be, for such a transformation might be what lieder truly asks, if not demands.
This transformative power is one that Deutsch wields in both teaching as well as performance. His dual talents, as a teacher and an interpreter of lied, are long-standing, with twelve years of instructing composition, piano, and musicology at the Vienna Music Academy, and more than two decades as Professor of Lied interpretation and performance (Professor für Liedgestaltung) at Munich’s University of Music and Performing Arts, where he still gives classes, among other locales. His extensive discography includes recordings with some of the biggest names in the history of opera, many of whom (Peter Schreier, Brigitte Fassbaender, Angelika Kirchschlager, Grace Bumbry, Yumiko Samejima, Camilla Nylund, Bo Skovhus, Matthias Goerne, Olaf Bär, Diana Damrau, Dietrich Henschel, Michael Volle, Piotr Beczala, and Jonas Kaufmann) enjoy their very own chapters in the book. It’s not surprising Deutsch’s career is one marked by close work with singers, considering the central role singing played in his own musical development. The son of music-loving scientists who often sang at home, Deutsch had an active life as a chorister and writes that “as a child, it was the most natural thing in the world to be involved with choral singing. The children’s choir school in my area of Vienna was based in my primary school, and once a year there was a large choral festival during which about a thousand children gathered on the stage of the large hall of the Konzerthaus – a mighty experience for a little boy. Piano playing came later.”
The memoir begins with the pianist’s memories of touring with baritone Hermann Prey – the good times, the bad, and everything between – and then proceeds to move chronologically, with a myriad of observations on working with singers, the differences in audiences, the pressures (or not) of various live and teaching experiences, notable variations in performing spaces, and some timely (and timeless) advice for page turners. And, lest you think there must surely be no suitable place for conductors in a book written by a lied specialist, think again: Herbert von Karajan is given mention early on, and in a particularly endearing way, as Deutsch recounts an incident from the Salzburg Festival, when he was a chorister in the Singverein of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna), an active part of Austria choral life. Karajan, as then-Music Director of the group (forebears included Gustav Mahler and Willhelm Fürtwangler), was set to conduct a performance of Haydn’s Creation at the famed summer festival in 1965; Deutsch was called to step in to play piano during rehearsals. “Knees shaking, I stepped up to the podium, shook Karajan’s hand and sat down at the piano,” he writes. “I had never played a single note of the Creation.” The honesty with which the overly-fast-tempo incident is recounted, along with his honest reaction (and Karajan’s), may well inspire empathetic stirrings among those of us for whom the red-faced reactions of screw-ups in front of people we admire still sting.
A similar if less positive reaction is just as valid applied to those people and situations with whom we simply didn’t click, artistically, intellectually, or personally. Throughout its nearly 200 pages, Deutsch lets loose a refreshing honesty with regards to certain situations and recordings – but he is elegant in his assessments, and when he does name names (which is rare), there is a didactic spirit attached: one might learn from this thing he writes of, as a young singer, or pianist, or simply keen music lover. He also dismantles various overused cliches (“breathing as one” being but one) and approaches to material. “Striving to please and do everything ‘properly’ actually gives a boring and pale idea of both the music and oneself,” he writes. Everything, in music and in memoir, is meant for betterment – of performance, listening, overall creative experience. Richard Stokes, who is Professor of Lieder at the Royal Academy of Music, provides a sparkling English-language translation for the Kahn & Averill publication. Such linguistic lucidity beautifully captures the nuances of Deutsch’s speech patterns and mental meanderings, those thoughts when expressed by artists so often tend toward the musico-historico-narrative. Sentimentality, which could so easily sugar over the tone, is wisely avoided in favour of an umami-like pungency which reveals both firmness of intent and intense artistic commitment.
We spoke back in mid-February, as Deutsch was preparing to do a series of masterclasses in Vienna.
Your memoir is especially notable for its candour; that’s a refreshing quality.
I try to be polite as well, but it’s a little bit risky. So many singers are still alive and working with me. I didn’t really offend anyone, I don’t think. Perhaps you know the famous memoirs of Gerald Moore, and of course I have read this 50 years ago and I reread it a few times now, and found one thing very remarkable, that all the singers he was accompanying when he wrote the book – Dieskau, Schwarzkopf, de los Ángeles – were gods, but the others who had passed, he was not so nice to them. I thought, what I tried, is to give a real balance of not glorifying everybody who is singing with me at the moment because we are all human beings and have weak points also. I tried to make this as balanced as possible.
Something fascinating you explore is the automatic understanding that can occur between you and certain singers…
… it’s especially the case if you’ve known them a long time – for as long as I’ve known Jonas Kaufmann, for instance. After thirty years now, we are like an old couple!
You can read each others’ minds on stage?
Exactly. And what I think is very important as part of that is watching a singer’s body language. Of course I know him well, so I’m aware that he has an incredibly long breath and where I would have to speed up for other singers, he would say, “No, don’t get faster!” I’m able to know that after so many many years… although I had the opposite of this experience, with some remarkable singers who wanted to discuss every detail: “Let’s do this” and “Let’s try out that”. And this is interesting, but sometimes you lose any spontaneity you might have had; when you have figured out all these solutions and think, ‘This has to be like that all the time”… this is boring in the end.
So you feel there is a point where the studying must stop and instinct has to take over… ?
It’s interesting with him – do you know he is extremely popular in Germany and Austria, but only for his humorous poems? The dark stuff is almost unknown.
Poet Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914)
Why is that?
Because he was known as a humorist, so he’s extremely popular just for that. For the generation of my parents and for mine too, they – we – knew parts of his poems by heart, they were so popular. And somehow he was… the idea of the audience is that he’s a funny guy, but he *was* dark. And you are right, Gál’s music complements it with these serious things. There are no jokes in it!
How is Gál’s music different or unique for you as a musician?
He’s certainly coming from the tradition of Johannes Brahms, although it’s amazing you would not think he was composing most of these early songs in the time of Gustav Mahler – you can’t feel any influence of that. He was very traditional. I’m sure Christian Immler told you everything about this discovery of what his daughter had, that he didn’t want these songs published. I think it was only because he got very old and these songs were written more than a half century before, so as an old man he said, “Oh I have not the feeling for this anymore” – but he’d only published five of his songs out of all this material. And it was interesting to convince his daughter that this is music to print – finally she agreed, but it took a very long time.
What’s that like to play?
Gál must have been a good pianist because, I would not say it’s easy to play, but it’s pianistically written. For comparison, you can see even in Mahler songs he was a very good writer but he was not a pianist, so some of his parts are a little bit against the piano technique – but people like Schumann and Brahms, and also Strauss and Hans Gál, certainly played piano very well, the writing is very logical.
Christian said that you and he never discussed interpretation in examining and recording Gál’s work.
That’s right, we never did – and I think we had no great discussions about such interpretation because we both fell in love with the songs when we saw the manuscripts, and we both had the same feeling that this is very good music, very precious. Christian is also one of these singers you don’t have to talk a lot with – there was not even discussions about tempo, as far as I remember, it was four, five years ago when we recorded it now, but there were no problems in terms of, “I see this different” or “I would like to do this much slower” or “This should be much faster” – no, it was chamber music on the very best level. On Modern Times we’d already done the known Hans Gál songs (then), and that was the start of this. Eva came to our concert (related to that album) in London and said, “Oh my father would have loved this” and I said, “What a pity he only wrote these five songs” and she said, “No no, there are many more!” And she invited us to see the songs, and we went through every manuscript for two days. He had good handwriting, very clear, and we are very lucky that, finally, with the help of the grandson (Simon), the whole thing worked.
Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman
So do you feel like an ambassador for his music?
Yes. You know the heritage of all his works is now in Vienna, and I hope they will do a little bit more for him now.
It’s interesting to think about composers like him, whose works are becoming more known, and reading about the reductions of famous works which you played when you were starting your piano journey. What, in your view, is the benefit to a young musician, of learning reductions?
I grew up with my very musical parents who were scientists, and I played a lot of four-hand music with my father. This was very important, because you learn, especially when you play the lower parts, in general your left hand is more important, and many little notes are not so important, so you must figure out the harmonies and the rhythms. And it’s totally different from learning a solo piano piece. In my young years it was still considered house music, that was still alive, because long-playing discs had just started and of course there was the radio, but it was quite usual to sit down and play Beethoven symphonies or to do a bit of sight reading – you got, in many cases, the essence of the piece much much more Later on I played, let’s say, more professional arrangements – for example, things specifically written for two pianos. Brahms wrote a lot of arrangements for two, or, one piano and four hands – all his four symphonies, the serenades, and many chamber music pieces, for instance. The symphonies I played on the piano, but in concert and really professional. It’s fascinating to do, because you think you know these famous four works almost by heart, and then you start playing and you are not… there’s the pure music, because you don’t have trombones and clarinets and strings; you have just this one instrument. It’s like seeing into a microscope; you see everything much clearer.
Of course it’s more fascinating with the orchestra, but to get to know a piece, to know it very well, to analyze it, you play it on the piano. I did an exam as an opera coach, so I studied starting with Mozart operas, Strauss and Wagner operas, and you are not, I don’t know the words… when you listen to a big orchestra you’re overwhelmed sometimes or many times by the instrumentation, by the use of instruments and their timbre – the brass or the solo flute or whatever – it doesn’t make you concentrate on the music only. But when you play on piano you get all the tones – in a good way. You are not disturbed, you are concentrating on the music and nothing else and you are not overwhelmed by that brass chord in a fortissimo or whatever. When you play rheingold on the piano, however, and I’m not a big Wagner fan, I must say, the music is very poor for many minutes and then of course comes the famous theme, and “Ah yeah, this is Siegfried’s theme!” but in-between there is not much, but Wagner was able to make everything interesting because of such great instrumentation work. On the positive side when you play Brahms symphonies you find out much more about the construction. It’s really fascinating. So I think Brahms, in his older years, said, “I’m not going to concerts anymore; I just will read the score of a Beethoven symphony and I enjoy it” – this is a little bit similar to playing on the piano only, and getting the essence and the main core of the music; you can adore it, or you can find out that, eh, it’s not everything so glorious, like in The Ring for example. But this is my very personal opinion.
Certainly there’s the opinion that certain things should not be performed in reduction, some things by Wagner, for instance; there’s a feeling we will just have to wait to hear those things live again now.
But that’s when the opportunity for lieder comes. You write in the book that Liederabend are not programmed so much, but, do you think now, in our pandemic era, it might be more?
I was feeling this in the last year because so many events were cancelled. I jumped in with Jonas very often – instead of Fidelio for instance, we had a recital. And somehow (the style of the music) fits or, it fits very much more with the isolation, the sense of intimacy – and I hope this will remain, even after the pandemic.
You write that Hermann Prey didn’t want people to look in the program books when he sang – ‘They will know the meaning of everything from my voice!’ – but I think it is vital to know the poetry and how the sounds relate…
How extensively do you study texts yourself, even one you know well, before performances or recordings?
I must admit, first of all I started when I was fourteen, fifteen years old, I think. I wrote this in book, that I was a normal boy who was interested in sports and girls of course, but I was also reading a lot of poems, especially (the works of) Eichendorf and Heine and Goethe, and I fell in love with a lot of these poems; I only found out later that these are also songs: “Wow, these poems are composed of music already!” This was a shock in the best sense, in a very positive way. It was great! I must admit over the many decades I have to rethink the meaning of a poem very often and I do read, I read normally when I have a half hour before a concert and will be sitting in my dressing room; I’ll read the texts again. Also I know many of them almost by heart, but it’s the same feeling with the music, just the same: you find details in pieces like Winterreise or Dichterliebe. You always, even after fifty years, find new things, and this is very exciting. In the world of text, I am not so much at home, they are difficult texts and there are texts which seem to be very easy, very simple, but there is so much underneath and you can read and read again and again, and, “Oooh! Ah! There’s a double meaning! And there is a shift, a metaphor, that image…!”
With the great poems, sometimes I think there are great poems by Rilke, for instance, but he was not composed-to very often, it’s very difficult, the words … there’s so much music in the words already, that they don’t need music, or any kind of music doesn’t fit. Many times you have great songs written by more or less unknown poets too; if you look at Richard Strauss songs, (Julius) Bierbaum (1865-1910) for instance, is rather unknown, or mostly even forgotten. A poet like him was known in his time but not so much now, and he is survived only by these songs Strauss wrote. The quality of some of these songs with texts by more or less forgotten poets is really great, and some of them especially have a connection with the music. I didn’t really study German Literature professionally but it’s a permanent question: what did he really mean by that? And so on. When you teach twenty-something year-old (vocal) students, it’s so often the case that they didn’t think a bit about the words. They think about the voice, of course, and maybe sometimes the intonation, but you can feel from a singer very soon that he or she is thinking in terms of the meaning of a poem or single words, or that he or she wants a color which belongs to the meaning of these words, and sometimes you see there is no feeling for the material at all, and this is a permanent struggle when you teach, even with professional singers.
I was just going to say, sometimes there are singers who just churn it out, and it seems obvious they don’t really have an understanding or intimacy with the text; there’s output, and sometimes it’s impressive, but I can sense when there’s no input.
I appreciate your chapter in this regard where you write of your niece’s observations on Barbara Bonney in recital.
Yes, that was so interesting to see. My niece was fourteen or fifteen years old then and the reviews of the concert said, “Oh such wonderful interpretation!” But a child feels a lot. It was really impressive to hear her make such observations.
Her observations highlight the differences in listening quality between locales and contexts. Some of my musician friends have noted those differences too – they can pick it up right away, whether the audience is “with” them or not.
I totally agree, it’s very different from place to place. There are special audiences in Europe, in Wigmore Hall – that’s a very educated audience – and also in Vienna. You have people who have bought every series for forty years and are listening to sometimes the same pieces from the same (song) cycles for so long, and they are very critical. The big difference between London and Vienna in terms of audience is that the audience in the Wigmore Hall, in my experience, is rather cool when they don’t know the singer, but when it’s successful they are enthusiastic; the Viennese are not necessarily enthusiastic but they are much warmer from the beginning. It’s a case of, “Okay, you have your chance, we are happy to see a new face or hear a new voice.” But in London they are more critical. It’s amazing in the hall. It’s hundreds of recitals a year and the repertoire is much more than 50% in German – you are young, so there is time for you to learn German, Catherine!
The lessons continue…
Good, keep practising!
But, everyone has to have a starting point – for instance, I think it’s interesting you included a chapter on page-turners in the book. Why such a detail?
It’s a person who, in the best way, is not noticed; this is the ideal page turner. It’s someone the audience is not aware of as a third person. But really, I could have written fifty pages about this, because so much happens, it’s incredible. And I would say it makes a big difference if you are very close with this person. When you have the feeling she or he is criticizing, I’ve noticed… I have memories of recordings for example, I remember being in Frankfurt with a violinist, and we started with a piece which opens in a specific way, and my page-turner made a certain motion all the time. I said, “Is something wrong?” “No, what do you mean?” “You seem to dislike my tempo in this opening.” “In fact I do.” I said, “Okay, you don’t have to, but don’t show me, I’m not interested in your opinion.” And it’s not comparable to the situation between singer and pianist, but sometimes, if they are young people… they give me an atmosphere of being very interested and enthusiastic about a song or whatever, or, they can be judgemental. But of course I try to give some… humorous episodes. The importance of page-turners may disappear with tablets, maybe.
Or they may vanish because of continued performance restrictions. But perhaps now is also the perfect time for lieder, as you say, what with its mix of intimacy and intensity.
I am fully booked this year, but we are awaiting the next update from the governments in Austria and Germany. I am full with concerts in March and April and May, but we have no idea what is coming or not. It’s really frustrating, but I think we have the same situation everywhere. Master classes can happen online but I have in-person ones booked at the Vienna opera studio and in April in Munich. Inside these places everything is working, they are preparing a lot. Some places like Vienna and Paris they may only do one streamed performance and nothing else, like Carmen in Vienna and Aida in Paris – but they’re still working.
It’s heartening to observe this bit of cultural activity, however limited it is at the moment.
It is happening, and we have the possibility, especially for lieder and recitals, to go to 500 people in Munich and Vienna, maybe, depending on what the governments say. I was in Madrid recently with Jonas Kaufmann, at Teatro Real, and we had 800 people there; it’s a ⅓ of the capacity but it is still much better than nothing.
That’s a nice size for a lieder concert; the contrast between the immensity of a space and the intimacy of the music can sometimes be jarring…
… Ja, this is true, but the great singers are expensive! So (a small venue) is not practical anymore. When you think about what Schubert wrote, it was for a salon of thirty or forty people, and Schumann as well; the (trend of holding) lied recitals in big halls started very late. Now I’ve done stuff at the Met, and you can say it’s ridiculous, but on the other hand when almost 4000 people are listening to Mahler or Strauss songs… this is great. I remember going to the Musikverein at fifteen or sixteen years old, and I remember very well the recitals by Dieskau, I only had money for the very last row in the Second Gallery; I remember hearing some Schumann songs,and it being the very first time to do so, in this recital. This is almost sixty years ago now. I would say I was about eighty meters away from Dieskau, and… it worked. It was totally fascinating. So of course Dichterliebe or Winterreise were not written for a huge venue. But, on the other hand, when let’s say, famous people who must be paid, sing for, let’s say, Carnegie Hall and 2000 people, and there are five listeners there who say, “Oh, this was so exciting! I see there is in Alice Tully Hall an unknown singer but doing the same Dichterliebe; I want to go there”… well, there is progress! (Large venues) are good PR for the art form.
Kind of like live-streams; they’re not at all ideal but they’re PR for the art form, however temporary.
There is more music in private homes now – perhaps there no chance for anything live, only to put on a CD or to get concerts live-streamed… and this is better than nothing. So (the exposure) is, for this (classical) part of the world of music, a good thing. For now!
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The idea of vision over visibility is a good one in theory but is challenging in practise, as many in the classical world are realizing. Not having pushback from a team of colleagues and peers has meant longer wait times for the vaccine of varied perspectives. The recordings of Schnittke, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich (my COVID trio, I call them), together with the online lectures and live streams only go so far in providing alternatives. Maybe it is as P. D. Ouspensky suggested in In Search of the Miraculous, that “(t)here are a great many chemical processes that can take place only in the absence of light.” Perhaps there is value in sitting in the dark, but can be so painful, so lonely. We (I use the royal classical “we” here) are pondering our role(s) within the greater social milieu of life, loss, survival, and resilience, even as we try to survive and keep visible to someone, anyone. The notions of presence and absence are stark amidst the current socio-cultural atmosphere; more than one observer noted, for instance, the lack of classical artistry at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. At a time filled with calls for social justice (notably via the Black Lives Matter movement) and greater opportunity, what can we, as a classical community, actually do? Just who and what we are serving?
Even as there is removal, there is renewal, and that, surely, must be some form of grace. Barbara Hannigan was one of the many people I interviewed in autumn 2020, as a recipient of a 2020 Opera Canada Award., We spoke shortly after the launch of Momentum, an initiative pairing established figures in the classical world with young artists; the need for such a project is, of course, greater than ever. Hannigan decided to launch the project because as she explained, much as young artists were grateful for the guidance provided via her other initiative (Equilibrium) early on in the pandemic, what they really wanted were live opportunities to practise their craft. She said something during our nearly hour-long exchange which I find hauntingly profound:
My desire in life is to be of service, and I found the best way I could be of service is through music. I would be perfectly happy if I was really good at teaching, or really good at preaching, or whatever the case might be – I would be happy to do those things as well. I just like being of service, and it just so happens that music is my medium, but at the core of it is vocation; I have to have that. I think that’s why I was so into contemporary music, it was, or is, a vocation for me. I knew when I started out that it needed someone to be its voice, someone to advocate for it, or for them – for the composers and modern music in general – and I knew that I had this gift for modern music, that I was smart with this kind of stuff, and I thought, “Okay, that’s my calling; I have to do that. I’m good at it and not many are good, and not many like it, but I like it… I really like it!” It wouldn’t be of service for me to go sing Traviata or Bohéme and to have developed my instrument to just do those things, or Queen Of The Night; there’s enough people doing that. So looking back, I understand how my path took the curves it took.
This autumn I began a new position teaching first-year university students in a Media and Communications program; that ended in December, with a real sadness at bidding farewell to the many I felt I’d grown to know over the months, ones who emailed words of gratitude in the days that followed. I welcomed another group of students earlier this month when my seventh consecutive year teaching radio documentaries began. Though the overall tenor of this group is very different (final-term radio students tend to be boisterous than their first-term writer-colleagues), both experiences have called to mind Hannigan’s idea of service in this, the annus horribilis, and it might be said, the annus digitalis. Faces on screens, or not even that but disembodied voices, are now a norm, not an exception. My experience teaching piano, which I did for close to a decade, was carried out one-on-one, during a far more analogue era that necessitated physical presence for actual instruction. The experiential performance is missing, and one comes away feeling more alone than ever.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
That idea – performance – is, or can be, a loaded concept. To say someone is being “theatrical” (or “performative”) is a form of insult in the English language, as if the theatre is a vehicle for deception, a heightened reality that is not real in and of itself. Yet the sort of performance inherent to (good) teaching, for instance, is authentic, because it is a true presentation of self which threads together entertainment as much as enlightenment into a unique (and hopefully inspiring) blanket. In a very good interview with The Atlantic, Teller, who is the silent half of the magician duo Penn & Teller and a former high school Latin teacher, tells writer Jessica Lahey that “no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds […] That’s what affects students.” True, though some of us educators are affected as well, especially adjuncts whose teaching pursuits are but one piece of a very broad and varied mosaic. Many classical artists teach, and many feel there is no chasm between self and subject matter; one simply is – what one not only teaches, but what one performs, listens to, sings, plays, reads… hears, sees, smells, touches, tastes; to borrow from Hamlet, the awareness is all.
In that same Atlantic feature, Teller echoes my (long-held) feeling that Shakespeare’s works should be seen before they’re read, echoing Tolstoy words in What is Art?, that “one cannot judge the works of Wagner without having seen them staged.” (More on Wagner in a future post.) This immediacy of the experience of art is a crucial step on the path to service because it requires a real presence – but that presence has to be tempered in order to function at optimal capacity. Teller alludes to Francis Fergusson’s important 1949 work, The Idea of a Theater: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective:
In the art that lasts, there’s always a balance: purpose that is action, passion that is feelings, and perception that is intellectual content. In Shakespeare, for example, there is always a level that is just action, showbiz. There is always a level that’s strongly passionate, and there’s always a level that’s got intellectual content.
Thus immediacy only happens through a balance of elements: passion and intellect, showbiz and high art, yin and yang, dark and light (rock and roll, though perhaps “roll and rock” is more appropriate; the “roll” part seems to have gone sadly missing of late). Such balance brings the most memorable and challenging (and sometimes important) art to life. Balance brings subject matter alive for students; Peter & The Wolf is followed by the music of Sigue Sigue Sputnik in my classes, and that’s precisely how it should be.
What is so frustrating, again, is the lack of live human engagement. I can’t see anyone, therefore this cannot be the performance I intended. This cannot have the effect I would wish it to have. I don’t know how much I am affecting you (or not). It’s hard to feel I am being of service right now. Why am I doing this, beyond the money, really? Humanity, for all its droplet-spewing imperfection, comes in many different shapes, forcing many different questions, prodding at our self-worth and asking us to up our game in the stakes of artistic endeavour. This COVID time has forced contemplations within the classical community which point at absence (absence of money, absence of opportunity, absence of others) – but also a new, delicate presence composed of a heretofore unseen, unheard, unrealized capacity for creativity and curiosity. Aldous Huxley writes in The Divine Within that “(t)he Order of Things is such that no one has ever got anything for nothing. All progress has to be paid for.” Along with physical work, some of that payment involves (to paraphrase Ouspensky) sitting for lengthy periods in the absence of light, and allowing all those potent chemical processes to occur the way they need to. The past ten months have revealed, personally, a path littered with notions of worth and validation, strewn with perceptions of authority and power; a great many have been slotted in to the position my mother held up to her passing in 2015, of providing (or more frequently withholding) approval, validation, acceptance. It has only been through mandated isolation that such a realization has come, that a clearer view of patterns, like Socrates’ shadows on the wall, have been seen. I’ve given myself permission to walk, carefully masked, outside at last.
Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, date unknown. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Perhaps this is where the classical community, need to go – outside. We can’t be of service if we stay inside, fretting on a return to “normal” that is months, possibly even years, away, or may never indeed return at all. Our listening has changed, our experience of music has changed; we have changed – I hope we have. Questions need asking, and require real work to cultivate, if not answer entirely: where have we failed? What can we do better? How can we be of service? COVID has taken (and continues to take) so very much; if there is something it gives us in return, let it be a new presence, forged, like a new and better Ring, in the fires of an old world that needed to be released. We are here to give a performance in which we must get our hands dirty. Time to roll up our sleeves; the readiness is all.
It behoves any writer to know something about the subject to which they profess passion, love, adoration. Far from being antithetical to the spirit of discovery, context tends to enhance appreciation, understanding, and overall enjoyment, while leaving room for questions: why is a musical phrase Beethoven’s 5th done a certain way by Carlos Kleiber, but not by Klemperer? How much should the tempo in the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde be guided by text, or might there be another approach (and if so, what)? How do the alliterative sounds of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s writing inform the aural sounds of Strauss? What roads led to Wagner’s famous lack of resolution in Tristan und Isolde and what paths led out of it (what didn’t, really)? Some things have definitive answers, but in art as much as life, some things tend to be –must be – evolving conversations.
It’s good to be reminded of the importance of both definition and evolution, even while striving, amidst quotidian mundanities (the continual handwashing, the ever-growing pile of ironing, the nightly nod-off on the sofa) for something that can be felt and experienced beyond the immediate. Around the world culture lovers are largely in situ; the only travel many are able to do is through one’s own imaginings. How rich they truly can be when one has the brushes and the pigments at hand to shape the many flat, smooth surfaces of weeks and months before us, but oh, how difficult it can be to find the inspiration to start, let alone to continue. I tangle, on any given day, with threads that pull in all directions: emails, updates, cooking, correcting, battling seemingly-endless streams of dust. But something within persists, and has done to varying degrees since the pandemic began, a constant akin to Malevich’s infamous black square, which resonates, reverberates, swallows, enfolds, encompasses, and even (especially) enlightens. As I wrote at the end of April, curiosity has been the guiding light through not only the current COVID19 era, but more broadly, a music education sorely lacking in proper guidance through childhood and youth, but one which has enjoyed a lovely Renaissance in the last few years. In an editorial for Opera Canada magazine earlier this year I revealed my strong belief in studying prior to attending (or now, livestreaming) events; that belief extends to listening. I find it stressful to put on a piece of music and not know even a little bit about what I’m hearing, let alone something about the artists involved, its history of composition, and the various approaches to interpretation. The work of Edward Seckerson has been invaluable in this regard; context and curiosity join in important ways through his work, allowing for new insights, deeper questions, and ever more bundles of curiosity.
A self-described “writer, broadcaster, podcaster, and Musical Theatre obsessive,” I discovered Seckerson’s work via his regular reviews for Gramophone magazine. His smart, accessible, well-observed writing employs poetic if equally clear language; the Gramophone review of the Pentatone/Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester release of Das Lied von der Erde from earlier this year, for instance, mixes the text of Mahler’s grand work and its recorded history with keen musical and vocal observations, contextualizing and poeticizing in one sublime whole. Along with working in formal media for various British papers through the years (in the role of critic), Seckerson has worked in theatre and music, appearing onstage in various forms and roles. Writer and host of the long-running BBC 3 Radio series Stage & Screen, he is and has been a regular on radio and television, and has contributed commentary for the Cardiff Singer Of The World competition regularly. As well as penning books on Mahler and conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas, Seckerson has also been part of stage works exploring the life and works of composer Richard Rodgers and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Despite (or perhaps owing to) such accomplishments, Seckerson does not think of himself as press these days so much as a figure who, as he puts it, wants to be (nay, is) part of a broader creative conversation. Indeed, conversation is the thing he positively excels at; Seckerson has interviewed many, many people, including, as his website says, “everyone from Bernstein to Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney to Pavarotti, and Julie Andrews to Andrew Lloyd Webber.” His interviewee list is a who’s who of figures from the classical music, theatre, and musical theatre worlds, reflecting his passion for all of them, and, more broadly, his commitment to the intelligent exploration of culture in all its facets and forms. Such a gift for (and active commitment to) one-on-one conversation is truly a rarity in a world of pre-written Q&As and preening Insta-videos. I was fortunate to be able to experience this gift live earlier this year, during a talk at London’s Bishopsgate Institute featuring Sir Antonio Pappano; over the course of the evening I was struck by his casual balance of personal and profound, funny and foundational; attending a Seckerson talk means one will learn as much about humanity and artistry (and the sometime-connections therein) as about the actual figure themselves, no small thing in a world where image tends to trump authenticity.
Seckerson has put his distinct talent for conversation to work via a regular chat series produced over the course of the lockdown. Guests so far have included conductor Edward Gardner, violinist Nicola Benedetti, actor/singer Julian Ovenden, and mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connelly. Conversations span from thirty to sixty minutes and, as he explains, are entirely unedited, and are inviting exchanges which nicely embrace both the macro and the micro aspects of individual artistry and creative development, particularly within the context of our current pandemic era. His casual remark to violinist Nicola Benedetti during their conversation in June, that Elgar’s Violin Concerto (the performance of which was one of the final performances he attended in London before lockdown) is “the most intimate of epics”, inspired a spontaneous and enthusiastic response from the violinist (“It’s an amalgam of the very public and the very private Elgar”, he went on to explain), the warmth of which fuelled their lively almost-30-minute exchange. In a time when one’s spirit can so easily be dragged down by a multitude of daily mundanities, when life can feel so cold, empty, and robbed of joy, such sincere exchanges feel like a needed blanket of warmth and goodness.
Writing about another writer one happens to admire is no easy task; writing about a writer who is also a gifted conversationalist and who, octopus-like, has many arms in many different and fascinating worlds and is, quite simply, so very genuine, is indeed a rare gift. Perhaps my students, when asked what the c-word is, might also now respond loudly with, “Conversation! Commitment! Curiosity!” – for these are things Seckerson’s work has encouraged in my own pursuits, particularly through these many gloomy months. We spoke in August, before much of the programming now underway in London was announced.
Photo: Edward Seckerson
How have things been for you through the lockdown?
I live in central London, and it’s disturbing that the West End, and London overall, has been so empty – so many businesses are going to close. The Chancellor introduced a supplementary package for eating out Monday to Wednesday; it’s done the trick, and a lot of people are eating out as a result – they get £10 off their meal. In terms of the arts, people here are so desperate to get things moving again – they’re being so resourceful and creative. It isn’t always successful, but the will is there, and that’s important.
Have you had time to reflect on your work during this time?
Well, one of the things I suppose I learnt over the years of reviewing – and of course I still review for Gramophone – is that I always feel, just as I did when I was writing for The Independent, there is really no point offering your subjective view. Everything is subjective! But it’s best to offer some sort of insight into the piece you’re reviewing. I wrote a review this morning for Gramophone of the new Dudamel recording of the Ives symphonies, and I spent most of the review really talking about the music, because that, to me, is more important than just registering whether we have another successful performance on our hands, or what the merits or otherwise are of this performance. I think it really is important to give some kind of guide to the piece you’re reviewing, and the same is true of when I do the comparative reviews on (BBC) Radio 3, on Record Review – I think it’s important to offer people some kind of road map to the piece as well as interpretations.
That map, for those who don’t have a formal degree in music, is very helpful; it feels like a door swinging open, which isn’t always the case with classical music writing. Is that your intention?
Yes, that’s exactly my intention, to make that map clear. I always say that it’s almost irrelevant whether Ed Seckerson thinks a performance is special or not; what is important is that I offer some kind of sense of the experience, the shared experience if you’re reviewing something live. People who weren’t there want to know what it was like to be there, so there’s that element. I used to get a lot of flak when I reviewed opera for The Independent; people would say I spend too much time discussing the production and not enough time discussing the relative merits of the cast and their performances, but since most of those reviews were about new productions to me it was important to try and express, or offer, some kind of insight into what I think the director was looking for.
I’ve received similar feedback, that I focus too much on the ideas of the director and theatre aspects overall, and not enough on the singing, but I read your review of Barrie Kosky’s infamously divisive staging of Carmen and it gave a real sense of why he chose what he did, contextualized within the history of this very famous opera.
… and that’s the point. I think there are a lot of spectators out there who simply want their opinion to be endorsed or otherwise when they go to the opera – (like) if their favorite singer is singing, they want to see a rave about them. But it is actually important to discuss how the piece is being reimagined. Opera would very quickly become a museum culture if people didn’t keep reimagining the pieces, and sometimes they do so with limited success, sometimes they do so with hugely insightful success, and I think that’s important. One of the reasons why I’m successful as a critic is because I was an actor, and I have a very real sense of what it’s like to be on a stage and be that vulnerable – but also, if a director makes a choice, I feel it’s important to be able to ask, if it’s not immediately clear, why he or she has made that choice, to be able to offer some kind of suggestion or insight as to why they might’ve made that choice. And I don’t think audiences question that side enough. One of the reasons it took so long for slightly more, shall we say, radical theatrical productions to become the norm was because audiences weren’t prepared to do some of the work themselves. And I think it’s important that audiences are not passive, even if it’s a concert. I’ve spoken to so many musicians who say they know immediately when an audience is listening in a certain way; if an audience isn’t listening in a certain way, or there isn’t that connection, they know immediately that that performance won’t succeed, or won’t succeed on the level they might’ve hoped.
Musician friends of mine have noted how the quality of the listening can change dramatically according to where they perform; geography makes a difference.
That’s because certain audiences are experiencing a different culture of music, sometimes for the first time, so they might listen more intently.
That’s true! We do take a lot for granted here; we are very spoiled in cities like London, which is surely a music capital of the world. The choice, on a daily basis, when there isn’t a pandemic, is absolutely extraordinary, and you know, this time has made me appreciate what live music really means to me.
Backstage with Dame Diana Rigg at Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 2019.
What has changed in the quality of your listening as you stepped away from reviewing?
Well, one of the pleasures of giving up writing newspaper reviews was that I could actually go and sit, relax and participate as an audience member, which gave me, and still gives me, great joy. You do listen differently when you are writing about something. I still listen in great detail but I think part of your brain is already forming the sentences, is already thinking of images, for the review you’re going to write, which is an intrusion. I first wrote for The Guardian in the days when pretty much all the reviews were overnight reviews, and I was never so unhappy as I was at that time as a journalist. I did it because it was a big break for me and it was establishing my name, but I hated every minute of it, and when I joined The Independent, the first thing I said to Thomas Sutcliffe, the arts editor, was, “If you’re doing overnight reviews, I’m not in the business of writing them” and he said, “No, I want people to sleep on what they’ve experienced and get up the next morning having digested and let it sit for a while.” All this nonsense about rushing out to meet the 11pm deadline doesn’t help anybody.
A long time ago there was an arts editor I worked with, and (Placido) Domingo was in town doing a revival, yet another, of the (Franco) Zeffirelli Tosca, it was Gwyneth Jones and Domingo, and the editor said, “We want an overnight review because it’s Domingo” and I said, “The show comes down at twenty minutes to 11pm; there are two intervals in the production; your deadline is 11pm; it’s impossible” and the editor said, “Well you’re no use to me as an opera critic if you can’t deliver a review after the show.” I said, “When will I do it?” He said, “You write during the intervals.” I said, “How can I write organically about a performance when it’s only a third of the way through? Oh, but wait, I have a good idea: why don’t I write the review before the performance?” It took him a moment or two to realize what I was actually, rather savagely, saying. And I did write the review, and I basically had to cheat it and write at the intervals, so there was no coherence. That is the kind of attitude that existed in media then and it still does, but thankfully some things have changed.
Some things have changed, but some have not, that attitude has transferred over to an obsession with clicks and views; Antonio Pappano and I spoke about it earlier in the summer and he said at one point, “if that’s what we rely on, we’re lost.”
When I did my talk with Pappano – you were there – at Bishopsgate earlier this year, we spoke backstage about the new culture of journalism, actually. You know, I was in at the start of this (change) – I was a mainstream classical reviewer in the days of broadsheet papers as well as this transition online, and indeed I remember people I knew at Glyndebourne, when the online thing started to happen, saying to me, “What are we going to do about inviting people?” I said, “You have to make value judgments about the kinds of writers you’re inviting – ignore all this business about how many clicks and hits they get, and just read what they write; read the work, and decide who you think is worth inviting.” It’s that difficult, and it’s that simple. And so when we spoke in January, Pappano himself was horrified I couldn’t get arrested at the ROH these days. I said, “It’s not because I’m writing reviews; I’m honest about that. It’s because I want to be part of the argument; I want to be part of the debate about the kind of work that’s being done at the ROH.” I mean, I’d be quite happy to attend rehearsals, but the attitude is always, “Oh no, you’re a member of the press! You can’t!” and I’ve said, “But I’m not a member of the press anymore, I’m just me…!”
This sounds frustratingly familiar.
It’s so frustrating. If I go to a dress rehearsal and I want to make some constructive comments, I won’t write a review, I want to be part of the debate before or after the performance. But I can’t contribute anything if I wasn’t there.
You’ve still really crossed over from the media world. What has that process been like?
It’s been very interesting. Long before I wrote for The Guardian or The Independent I was invited to ENO, during the Sir Mark Elder/David Pountney regime, and I got invited because the Press Officer was enlightened enough to know my background. I was making in-roads as a journalist and writer but had come from the theatre, and I had a musical background as well, but I had come from the theatre directly and they had the good sense to invite me long before I was writing reviews – so I had points of reference. When I did start writing reviews, I’d been there, watching these shows, seeing this company develop, which fed into the kind of writing I produced, which fed into the things I did when I started writing for a major paper.
So you paid your dues, just not in the usual way… ?
I paid my dues, though yes, my background is very unusual for a music journalist, because although I studied music when I was young – I was saying this in the interview I did recently with Nicola Benedetti – my problem was when I started learning the piano at a young age was that my musicality had already exceeded what I was capable of doing on the instrument, and I found it hugely frustrating. Nicola completely identified with that, by the way! I said, unless I started even earlier – and that battle that goes on between technique and musicality is huge.
When I was learning piano as a child, musicality was something others tried to forcibly extricate; there was an intense focus on technique instead, which I was never very good at. Musicality was perceived as being unfocused, sloppy, pointless.
How awful! I mean, I went to a comprehensive school where they had peripatetic music teachers, and I was handed a violin one day and learned my way around that instrument without much success, but at least I knew my way around it. I took up percussion, which was a way of producing more instant results. I could read music and rhythm, and picking up the technique was relatively uncomplicated compared to learning the violin, so I was able to play with amateur orchestras and youth orchestras, and that was another way in. But this thing about musicality, coming as I do from a theatre and music background, I was brought up to believe rather as Leonard Bernstein said, to just embrace music in all its facets, in all its styles – that’s the way I was brought up. I was never directed toward “good” music or “serious” music, I was just encouraged to enjoy music, period, and lucky enough to be taken to theatre and musicals and concerts, and that’s where it all started to marinate. Many of my colleagues come from more academic backgrounds. I always say, nothing wrong with that at all, but if you’re going to be a critic, and a lot of young students have often asked me about this – “What is the route in? What is the way in?” – I’ve always said, there isn’t any particular way in, it’s a case of just doing it.
This is precisely the advice I give my own students: do it, do it a lot, but be wary of doing it for parties who will exploit your talent and energies.
Precisely. I started years ago, by producing dummy reviews and sending them to people, because I was an avid record collector as a boy, and as I grew up I became more and more fascinated by interpretation, and that, to me, was where the music-making really started to happen. So I always say to people, it’s not so much what you know, it’s what you feel. And if you can’t recognize when an artist makes a beautiful phrase, then you’ve no business doing the job. It’s about having a musicality which chimes with what the artists themselves are doing. And you have to feel confidence in that. The one thing I am confident about amongst all my insecurities: I am completely confident about my musicality.
That confidence translates to your online conversations. Why did you start this series?
When lockdown happened, my partner said to me, “Why don’t you do audio?” I said, “Honestly, do I really want to do audio? And not earn a penny?! Surely I should be looking for ways to earn a bob or two during this period!” And my partner said, “It’s important you’re out there and doing what you do.” So I decided to do a series with people that I had some kind of association with, either we’ve crossed paths or I knew their work or they knew my work. Nicola was the exception – I had never met her, but one of the last concerts I went to this year was her live performance of the Elgar violin concerto at the Royal Festival Hall; I was blown away by it and thought it was a good reason to speak to her, since the related album was coming out.
But basically what I wanted to do was to talk to people that would feel comfortable relaxing on a remote audio with me, and were prepared to do so without editing. These audios are all unedited, they are completely spontaneous – this was important to me; sometimes a doorbell rings or whatever, but basically I’ve said to these artists, “I want this to be raw, as if we’re doing this live.” And I was determined we should mix classical and musical theatre, because they are my two main areas. I started with John Wilson – I bumped into him literally in the first week of lockdown, he’d moved around the Tate Modern, and I was walking down the Embankment, and there he was. We stood in socially-distance conversation for a while, and I said, “Hey do you want to this?” and he said “Sure!” What I decided now is to continue to do them. I think as a writer you have to get past … look, this is tricky, but you have to get past the idea that you do this only professionally for a living; sometimes you should do things occasionally for the hell of it. That was a difficult pill to swallow at first; I felt I was putting a lot of effort in for no return, and as a freelancer that’s a no-no. When I think back now to the kinds of jobs I would turn down routinely, I would be quite grateful for them now.
Engaging in freebie culture is something I caution my students against. When it’s you calling the shots, it’s a different energy; you have all the control. That’s different than giving everything away to an organization who will exploit your talent for their numbers.
Exactly! Several have said to me, “You should charge for these interviews” and I said, “But this is my product; I have total control over it.” It’s been quite refreshing to go to people with my reputation and history and just say, “Hey, do you want to do this?” Generally speaking they’re only too pleased, especially during this time, but I think they’ll be pleased after this crisis is past, so long as I can supplement it from other paid jobs; most of my work consists of live conversation events at festivals or the like; Bishopsgate was an experiment. I lost a huge amount of work when the pandemic struck, including live interviews with Dame Janet Baker, an evening with Petula Clark at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and many bookings with Patricia Routledge, who I’ve been working with for years in a show called Facing The Music, about her musical theatre career. Those things are where the money for me is. Writing, broadcasting, the BBC fees have gone down and down… you have to move with the times, and reinvent yourself. I reinvented myself hugely, because as an ex-actor, I loved the buzz of being onstage and still do, albeit in a different capacity.
Backstage with Claude-Michel Schönberg at Bridge Theatre, February 2019.
I was in theatre also and I do miss it, though I find performance and authenticity now tend to meet through writing; do you find this in your pursuits?
Oh yes – and these audio interviews, I hope, are something that shows the best of what I do. I think good interviewers are few and far between; let’s focus on the people who can initiate a conversation as opposed to doing a Q&A. I hate those. People say “Will you do a Q&A?” and I say, “No, I’ll do a real conversation.”
The reciprocity of a real conversation demands sincerity, which seems like a rare commodity these days.
It is – and I’ve met and spoken with a huge cross-section of people, in various capacities. I was a mainstream presenter on (BBC) Radio 3 for some years, I used to do the breakfast show on the weekends and had a show called Stage & Screen, which ran for six years and was devoted to musical theatre. I learned a lot on that show and had a great time. We met an awful lot of luminaries from the world of musical theatre, and I learned a lot about sitting down and conversing with people.
That’s what radio teaches one: the importance of give and take.
It’s a huge thing. You know in the first few minutes of talking to someone who’s done x number of interviews with people if it’ll work. I interviewed Glenn Close for Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum; they didn’t want to put her in front of the press corps, it was done with me interviewing her rather than people shouting out questions. I did a video interview just before that for the website and I remember, it was so obvious, she sat down like, “Oh here we go, another interview” – as a film star she would have done twenty-five or more in a day to promote a film – but the first thing I wanted to talk about was the Richard Rodgers musical Rex she’d been in when she was unknown. I was just curious about that; Nicol Williamson had been in it also And she looked visibly stunned when I brought this production up. The whole interview changed direction the minute she knew that I knew what I was talking about, that I wasn’t another hack. But I’m afraid in some quarters, in the theatre and movie world, it’s par for the course. The level of ignorance among so-called journalists is breathtaking – and yes, the sheer laziness, the total lack of research. People you talk to, they want to know that you respect the work they do, it’s only natural, you sometimes have to talk with people in rotten moods, but the minute you turn it around and say, “What I thought was interesting about your performance was this and this and this… ” – it changes everything.
Good interviews demand many things: research, listening, reciprocity – all while holding one’s own. Lately it feels as if these things have been disposed of via online culture…
… oh, this whole business of so-called “influencers” is driving me absolutely nuts! It’s about nothing at all; it’s just so much noise around people who appeal to the lowest common denominator and who generate a following. Suddenly they’re endorsing various things…
It’s worse in the musical theatre world too – it’s a different kind of celebrity. There is Instagram casting in that world; I’ve spoken to producers who have engaged in it. When I did my stage conversation last year with Patti Lupone I brought this up and she was mortified by the whole thing. It’s this whole box-ticking thing…
Backstage with Patti LuPone at Theatre Royal Haymarket, March 2019.
“This person has x number of followers” – even if they bought them – “this person gets x number of views on their videos” – those are easy to fake – “this person gets lots of engagement” – how many of them are genuine? – “this person has a cool/sexy image” – which is all photo filters…
Indeed, but there’s also the basic question: can (the artist) actually do the job? Live and onstage? Are they the best person for the role? Or are they being cast because they have six million followers on Instagram? It’s a serious problem. Producers want to sell tickets obviously, and Intendants want to sell their opera houses, but if we’re not very careful, it could derail the integrity of the business. It really could. I participate in social media because I like to think of myself as savvy when it comes to online, but I don’t exploit it as much as I could; I am very suspicious of it. And I think unfortunately, the first question you’re always asked – and you probably experienced this yourself – you go to someone who doesn’t know your work, and you say, “May I do this?” and they say, “How many hits does your website get?” I mean… many of the people working in the business now are so young and they have no history or knowledge of the people or the history of people like you and me. And I’m not saying that in a boastful way; I’m saying it because it’s a fact. I get the most insane emails sometimes asking me to cover things that have absolutely nothing to do with my area of operation or expertise. I’m on a press list somewhere and so…!
Very often I get questions about my metrics too, and my response is that my numbers aren’t The New York Times, but they don’t have to be; my readership is faithful.
Exactly, and that’s the point! I mean social media is famous for endorsing things so you put something up with all your powers and people who know you in the business will like it, and click on the button, but how many listen to the interview the whole way through, or read the whole feature to the end? Of course I know people read Gramophone magazine – they read it from cover to cover, it’s the only serious record magazine left, which is why I still write for it – but I’m delighted some of my audio interviews have hit the spot for listeners. I know people who’ve listened to them and I know the pleasure they’ve got from them, which is far more important than reaching 50,000 people who don’t listen to more than a couple minutes. I will say, I didn’t want to do a series on the lockdown or the problems (of the music industry) associated with the pandemic; important though it is to talk about these things, that’s not what I’m in the business of doing. I wanted to stay talking about the music.
Speaking of music, Sarah Connolly’s relating the text of Das Lied von der Erde to Bach in your chat made me rethink that piece, but then, isn’t that the point of good conversation – to inspire one to think about things in new ways?
I agree with you entirely – but of course you’re only as good as the quality of your interviewee; this is where one has to be selective. I know why I chose the people I chose. And Sarah is a rare bird, not only a wonderful talent, but I’m probably more pleased with that one than the others so far, she’s such a great talker: engaging, amusing, smart, all those things.
Her trust in you seems palpable.
That’s where the history comes in. With some people it takes a long time to earn their trust; for instance, with Patricia Routledge, it took a long time before I earned her trust. She’s someone who’s lived on her own, who has huge integrity as an actor, but my goodness, it was worth the wait. When there is mutual trust, it frees you up, and it’s lovely for me when one’s reputation precedes one and someone is happy to do something simply because they trust you. We both know we’re going to have a reasonably stimulating exchange and I’ll not be talking about non-musical things as others might, that I’m there for the music. At the end of the day the music is what it’s all about, and that’s what I’ve adopted as my yardstick over the years.
In conversation with Patricia Routledge at Theatre Royal Haymarket, part of Seckerson’s “Facing The Music” series with the British artist. Photo: Danny With A Camera
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Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl
The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.
Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.
Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.
Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländerand Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individualtalentsandvoices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal.
Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl
What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.” Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) – allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed. It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being.
Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.
The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity, just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure, and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:
All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.
The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.
What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.
Dramaturgy is an art which holds alluring fascination for me as a writer. It’s a pursuit that knits together the solo worlds of research and academe with the collaborative energy of cultural disciplines on which opera is based (theatre, dance, art, music) in a way which, if done well, is barely noticeable, but wholly vital. It is interesting to consider dramaturgical contributions at opera houses in Europe, particularly in German-speaking ones where the role is most active, and to consider what a dramaturg’s influence may have been (or is, or could be) on the final product in places like Berlin, Munich, Zürich, and beyond. How do the role’s various elements (historian, researcher, objective observer) intermesh with others (designers, directors, conductors, performers, creative and administrative personnel) to produce an ever- evolving (sometimes satisfying, sometimes not) end result? How is it central to an audience’s appreciation (or lack thereof)? How does that work influence perceptions? Why should it matter? How is the “soft power” of dramaturgy important?
These questions were swirling around my mind when the announcement came in late 2019 of Canadian theatre artist Julie McIsaac’s appointment as the inaugural Director/Dramaturg-in-Residence with the Canadian Opera Company (COC). McIsaac’s year-long residency is the latest addition to the COC Academy, the company’s professional development program for young opera artists, creators, and administrators, and seems like the right thing, at the right time, for a company that wants to expands both its audiences and creative possibilities for its productions. General Director Alexander Neef (Director Designate of Opéra National de Paris), has, since his coming to the COC in 2008, taken an iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach to expanding both the capabilities and the ambitious of Canada’s biggest opera company, bringing in many so-called “Regie” directors (Claus Guth and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) as well as high-calibre names including Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto. The fact that the company now has an in-house dramaturg bodes well for the future. One can only hope the position extends beyond a year to become a regular part of the COC, its influence and significance becoming sewn into the fabric of various production cycles.
Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company
McIsaac has an incredible and varied resume in theatre, with experiences in stage direction, writing (plays and libretti), and music. She studied theatre (University of York), Music (Carleton University), and Theatre Performance and Playwriting (Canadian College of Performing Arts), and, along with collaborating with directors Atom Egoyan and Peter Hinton, was Artist-in-Residence at Pacific Opera Victoria from 2016 to 2018. In September 2019, McIsaac helmed the world premiere of Beauty’s Beast (with music by composer and soprano Allison Cociani and libretto by Anna Shill) for East Van Opera. McIsaac also helped to create an original series of opera presentations for young audiences which featured excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Puccini’s La Bohème, and Janacek’s Jenůfa. As part of her COC residency, McIsaac will be collaborating with the company’s Composer-in-Residence, Ian Cusson, on a new work for young audiences, which will be presented as part of the company’s 2020-2021 season (officially announced on 10 February).
I was curious to learn how McIsaac perceives her overall role as dramaturg and what she sees as its inherent possibilities for creating opera as an integrated art. I was also keen to get her thoughts on working as Assistant Director on the upcoming COC production Hansel & Gretel, which opens February 6th; she’s working with COC Music Director Johannes Debus as well as stage director Joel Ivany, a Canadian theatre artist celebrated for his unique, space-specific work with Against the Grain Theatre Company (including a 2016 staging of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a reality-TV dating game, presented in a real TV studio). In the official release for Hansel, the COC hints that Ivany’s vision for Humperdinck’s 1893 opera will focus on “income inequality and environmental sustainability.” In addition to mainstage presentations, the company is set to present a number of condensed English-language performances for young audiences. McIsaac and I chatted in December 2019 amidst the bustle of the holiday period, just as she was exploring the granular details of Hansel & Gretel.
Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper
Your creative range seems well-suited to your new role as COC dramaturg – is that accurate?
I’m really fortunate, but also it’s a testament to my upbringing and my interests, also the breadth and diversity of work happening in Canada right now.
With Germany in particular, the operatic tradition there, and the national connection to it in terms of its connection to that art, is long-standing. There are centuries and centuries of work created by artists living and working (in Germany) directed toward audiences living and working there. So it does make sense to me that over time those artists and those audiences are interested in digging into the origins of those pieces, but also reinterpreting them and taking the time, when a new production is done, to meet the production within its original context but to also have these convos and explorations that open up how they might resonate in the here and now. Perhaps it’s because they already have such a firm foundation in the straightforward representation of those words they feel it’s a natural progression for them, as an artistic and national community, to then go beyond that and delve further, to push further, in terms of the interpretation of those works.
Whereas in Canada I feel like we really have felt the pressure to live up to a standard of excellence that our European and perhaps American counterparts have reached. And perhaps because our focus has been so much on reaching that standard or being able to compete and to perform at that level, that’s been the main focus – you could say, that’s where a lot of the energy has gone, getting to a place where we can do what they do as well as they do it. So now, what I’m really interested in, and what I’d like to see more of, is that as Canadian opera artists, we step out on our own – and in that space, I feel the dramaturg can help us do that, to dig into our processes and shed light on the questions we’re asking – or failing to ask, or could be asking.
L-R: Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper
In relation to those questions, I’m wondering where your role is in relation to staging and music. How does the triumvirate of dramaturg, director, and conductor function within your own context?
Maybe this comes out of my own experiences, but I’m a firm believer that there are no two projects which are the same. If we were to use the idea of a trinity or trifecta, as a team leading a process, depending on the work, the company, the audience for whom this work is being produced, I feel like there will be different needs and that can take so many different forms. For example, it might be there’s a director who wants to push an interpretation of a work but before doing that they want to make sure they have a firm understanding of what’s in the score, of what is there around original circumstances, I feel like we’re always doing our best approximation of what we can understand in terms of original circumstances, but I do believe there will be something a little out of our reach; as much as we dig into what’s there, we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived 250 years ago! There’s an ephemeral bit of something with we will never quite capture, and I’m okay with that.
But, circling back to your question, if that stage director is wanting to push a certain aspect in a work, I think it’s important we have a firm understanding, much as we can, of the original intent and what’s embedded in both the score and the libretto, so that interpretation can happen in relation to that, even if it’s in contradiction to it. At least there’s a conscious contradiction happening, so those choices aren’t being made in a vacuum. Even if they’re going against something that was part of the original intent of the piece, there’s a mindfulness around it.
“Mindfulness” seems to be one of the dramaturg’s biggest jobs – is that fair to say?
Yes, it’s making sure we’re aware of the repercussions of the choices. For the conductor and director, there is so much going on they have to manage and make happen, and I think it can be useful to have another person in the room who has the time and space, who can go back to those nitty-gritty details, or to just send some questions into the conversation as a prompt, like, “Hey do we realize by virtue of doing this, we’re going against that?” or “Do we realize that by making this choice we could risk alienating a particular group of our audience who may have a lived experience of x-y-z?” I said in the press release it is central to my ethos that it’s not about censoring or diluting what we do – we do want to put things out there that are bold and daring and risky. We know we can never please everyone; it’s not the role of the artist to please everybody, it’s the role of the artist to prompt conversation, and to move us forwards ideologically, but at the same time, we want to be conscious of doing that, as opposed to doing it by accident.
Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Russell Braun as Peter with (background L-R) Simone Osborne as Gretel and Emily Fons as Hansel in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper
I think you’re right, yes! Curiosity is such a great word! As much as we want to be curious about the work and what’s possible in the interpretation of the work, I think it’s great if all the artists working on the project also have a curiosity in terms of their own processes. One may have worked the same way on every single project, and there’s a reason one might have success doing that, but doesn’t mean there isn’t something else you can undercover in your process and shed light on who one is as an artist and what one can bring forward. I think you’re right about curiosity being valuable. It’s my hope, whether the audience is consciously aware of it or not, that there’s something that emanates from our interpretation of the work that open up a curiosity in them.
SIS NE’ BI-YÏZ: Mother Bear Speaks in October 2019 was very special; I’m curious if experiences from doing that, or other things, translates into Hansel & Gretel now, or if you start on a blank slate.
There’s a blank slate in the sense that no two projects are alike, so trying to bring my attention to what are the particular needs of this project, given the artists involved and the audience it’s intended for. At the same time, I can’t help but bring previous learnings and teachings from other projects into things. For example, with Mother Bear Speaks, (creator/performer) Taninli Wright asked me to direct the piece. Sometimes when we think of director-performer relationships it’s a hierarchy, and the director is higher than performer, but I think there’s reason to challenge that model. I think there’s also ways in which that model works, but in this case Taninli being a performer, it was important her voice and vision be centralised. I was always wanting to ask her questions or get feedback in the sense of, “In that moment we just saw that you just performed, here’s what I feel audience received – is that your intention? Is that what you want your audience takes away from that moment?”
In that case it was important for us to work collaboratively, because when I do feedback, I’m conscious that I’m one person feeding back and I can’t contain a multitude of experiences – I can only see things through my eyes and hear things with my ears, and there are subconscious biases in that – in each of us. By virtue of having a collaborative model, the designs were also welcome to feedback, and the stage manager and our producer were also feeding back. I was hoping to host a conversation in which a multitude of voices could feed back to the performer to let her know what we feel was kind of being perceived and emanating out from the stage so she could ask herself: “Does that align with my intentions?”
That’s one particular example where collaboration was important and everyone in the room having a voice was very important. That (collaboration) is something I feel passionately about, but I acknowledge it becomes complicated when you have many more people involved, like in a mainstage opera! You also have an orchestra, and all these people working backstage. If we honestly wanted to create a forum wherein every single artist has an opportunity to have a voice, that is a massive undertaking and we would have to build a specific kind of process for that to happen. I do acknowledge that some of these collaborative ideals might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, but again, I think this is about us asking: “What’s the desired outcome?” It’s about asking a community company or a large producing company and its leadership, “When a work is performed on your stage, what’s the desired outcome?” and then crafting a process to get us close to that desired outcome, whatever it may be.
Director Joel Ivany (left), conductor Johannes Debus (centre) and Assistant Director Julie McIsaac (third from left) in rehearsal for the 2020 Canadian Opera Company production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Canadian Opera Company
You’re working with Joel Ivany on Hansel & Gretel, who also has experience working collaboratively and in small, unique spaces.
It is! We both came up through this indie-theatre, indie-opera ethos, and we’re both used to working outside the mainstream, so it’s like we’re the scrappy kids from down the block coming into the big opera house! In relation to this production in particular, there’s a number of things we thought about: there’s a push for contemporary Torontonians to have an experience in the opera house that resonates with their lived experience, and there’s a push for the English-language performances for young audiences. We’ve got a partnership with four other local choirs, so kids from those choirs come on stage for the finale; having that community-engaged practise, and having this desire to reach into communities that might not otherwise feel like they have a place at the Four Seasons Centre, who might not feel included, or that (opera is) for them… in that way I think Joel and I are very much at home in the sense of being so aligned with values we hold dear. And it’s really exciting to see those initiatives at work and on the mainstage. I can’t stress enough the fact that sort of activity is happening on the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre is so exciting.
Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company
Hansel & Gretel has a lot of dark undertones relating to themes of poverty and greed but as is the case with The Nutcracker, they’re often smoothed over.
It’s true, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and (that dark nature) is in the libretto; there’s an edge to it in German that I think can get watered down in translation, and depending on the choices made in terms of production and staging and all of that, it’s interesting to consider. This being a new production, there’s a certain amount of prep work that’s been done, especially with (production dramaturg) Katherine Syer and the designers and the team at Banff who’ve been helping to create video and projection content (by S. Katy Tucker). But, despite all the work done ahead of time, there’s still exploration to come that we don’t quite know yet – that will really inform how those moments read that could have more edge, or darkness, or whatever. It’s remains to be seen how all those moments will come out!
Mihail Teisanu, “Woman Wearing A Mask”, 1919. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please to not reproduce without permission.
Earlier this week Associated Press released a year-end summation of sorts relating to the story they broke earlier this year around allegations of sexual misconduct by Placido Domingo. Reading it, I found myself sad but also frustrated – it’s depressing to see so much consistent pushback against the women who spoke out, and equally sad (if unsurprising) to note the consistent attempts to discredit them. Such actions highlight the many social and cultural divisions that must be overcome if we, as an industry are to evolve.
I wrote in a recent post about walls, and how, despite a lot of big talk on the theoretical beauty of their vanishing, the reality is that we tend to like them – what they keep in but also what they perceivably keep out. Nowhere is this more true than in the chasms that have been revealed within the classical world related to the #MeToo movement. The issue is, to my mind, larger than whether or not these women should have spoken out (though I think it’s good they did); more broadly, it points to attitudes held by many in and around the industry which dictates that women and men are “a certain way”. There’s a lot of gender-slotting into little boxes of behaviour, ones that adhere to very old-fashioned and outdated clichés. These clichés around what’s “normal” for a gender feed into a reality relating directly to power, one that can hire and fire, favor and dismiss. Some may well argue (and have, vociferously) that women should use their so-called “feminine wiles” in an industry that is so tough to break into. Why shouldn’t a woman use the gifts God gave her? Aren’t all men interested in “that sort of thing” from a woman? Such comments bring to mind an exchange I noted on social media earlier this year, in which, over the course of a lengthy thread relating to the Domingo case, one individual reiterated the belief that young women today are “too sensitive” and they should “toughen up” and “in my day we weren’t so bothered by flirtatious men.” This attitude is reflected in a quote soprano Laura Flanigan gave to AP, that “(t)he climate has always been ‘don’t tell and suck it up and deal with it.”
Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, 19th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
This past year I’ve frequently thought back to a memory from childhood, of a friend and I hiding in closets as tweens whenever a flirty male friend of my mother’s would visit; this man, married and with three children, would insist on kissing us at every visit. We made a kind of game of it, daring him to find us, as my mother emitted what I can only surmise now must have been vaguely embarrassed chuckles as she clattered away in the kitchen. We would mock-shriek when closet doors opened and there he would be, this man in a three-piece suit, grinning at us and then puckering up and leaning forward, as we would duck and attempt to run. Usually we weren’t successful and would have to endure cycles of his lips repeatedly on our faces and occasionally lips. We were taught to “endure” it (and that if we weren’t enjoying it, there must be something wrong with us), but in truth, neither my friend nor I found any of it fun or playful; we found this man exasperating, irritating, his attentions humiliating and annoying. We giggled in the darkness of the closet not out of good, spirits, but out of nervousness, not knowing what else, as young girls, we should do.
My mother, being pre-boomer, belonged to an era where women were indeed taught that such attentions were “normal male behaviour” and, as I grew older, I was told, in either word or gesture, that I should “use what God gave” me. My mother was part of a generation that proclaimed women should “toughen up” (especially when it came to male behaviour) and “not take everything so seriously” (I still remember her saying that, almost up to her death in 2015), and, should any hint of complaint be uttered, it was my fault for being “too sensitive.” If I had a dime for every time my mother accused me of this in the negative sense, I would indeed be wealthy. Hers was an attitude that would shape large swaths of my life, my choices, and my perceptions around power, and men, and what validation is and how it supposedly works. I wasn’t entirely surprised when, years later telling her about my own assault, I was met with a dismissive attitude and accusations that, having drank too much and worn a low-cut a dress, I had somehow “asked” for it. Every time I see a woman vehemently defending terrible male behaviour, I think of hiding in that closet, choosing that dress, my mother, and her words.
Such moments from the past year, together with the AP round-up, also make me think back to a frank discussion I had with soprano Lisette Oropesa this past autumn. Much has been made about using so-called “womanly power” and how, in the classical world, this has and continues to be a key tool to getting ahead, and staying ahead. As Oropesa put it:
I’ve seen successful women behave and talk and dress and flirt a certain way and I think to myself, why? At this point, it shouldn’t be necessary… it’s such a cheap trick. It’s low-hanging fruit! Any gorgeous woman can use it to advantage – and how many women can have careers doing that? Sure it has power, but it’s *old* feminine power.
This attitude of, “if you got it, flaunt it” makes as many gigantic assumptions as its closest sibling, “she had a choice“; first of all, why should you? To quote the song, is that all there is? Secondly, what if one doesn’t have “it”? Through choice or not, what if the “it” simply isn’t there? In many senses the lack of a societally defined “it” makes a woman, no matter how talented, entirely invisible. In an ideal world, talent would win out (and sometimes it does, but not often), but to quote my post about walls, human foibles make such idealism incredibly difficult to manifest, let alone enact. Changing attitudes in the industry means changing the way classical is both thought of, and marketed, and yes, run – which means changing the way both audiences and artists view a very specific list of things that require redefinition, starting squarely with what “it” is and why it should so matter in 2020 – or be booted out the proverbial door along with last century ideas.
Alessandro Varotari (called Il Padovanino), “Susannah and the Elders” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
A woman coming into an industry where she can expect to be objectified (and used) sexually is de rigueur for success, where that notion of utilitarianism as it relates to the interweaving threads of success, sex, power, and identity, has no actual power– or choice. To pretend otherwise is a very convenient illusion; what a wonderful trick of the prevailing powers, to have so many, young and old, mouthing such nonsense with such wide-eyed seriousness, for so long. Secondly, there is no notion of “two consenting adults” when the playing field is not level to begin with; who’s doing the hiring and firing? Who’s propagating a continuing (outdated) framework of what “it” is? Who’s making the decisions? Why? To quote Lisette Oropesa again, “There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!”” A woman fortunate enough to have “it” and using “it” within a world run by those holding on to their outmoded frames is not levelling the playing field, it’s bending over to make the world seem normal. To pretend otherwise is to engage in the most intense form of cognitive dissonance, and such a willful misperception would be amusing were it not so common.
Women who speak out against this system do not deserve to be branded as harpies, or to be called “over-sensitive.” They don’t deserve to be held up as examples of “typical American overreaction” or some “Westernized” anti-male brigade. If you hate the term “woke,” fine – use “evolution” in its place. Cultural difference is understandable but sharply contrasting ideas about the female experience reveals uncomfortable truths about which environments are willing to acknowledge alternative (and perhaps more equitable) realities, and which ones are fiercely determined to stay the same.
Aelbert Van Der Schoor, “The Concert” (detail), 17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
The intransigent adherence to so-called “tradition” in this sense (“men are like this; women are like this”), even as modern presentations and productions are simultaneously applauded, reveals a sad if unsurprisingly comfortable hypocrisy that gives a strange new meaning to the term “Old World”; I would ask such audience members to apply their same spirit of opennness to women who don’t fit the so-called “traditional” moulds of desirability, and indeed, to women who are willing to stand up and say clearly, “I don’t like this system, it’s crap, can we please make a change?” They aren’t sensitive; they’re direct. I would ask women who can’t understand such directness to kindly not use the very same brush for others’ portraits as they might use for their own; everyone requires different shading, details, application, and focus. There is no one-size-fits-all in any world, classical or otherwise. Your experience is not their experience; your time is not their time; your voice is not their voice – nor should it be.
Hans Von Aachen, “The Three Graces” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
And so, as 2019 comes to a close, I want to believe there is a chance for evolution in the classical world. I want to believe there is a will to use ways and means heretofore unseen. I want to believe we can all do better. Whether or not we choose such an evolution is entirely up to us. We hate to admit loving our walls, and, more than that (and especially within the classical world), we hate to admit they exist at all. Let 2020 be the time we can at least see them, and if not take them down entirely, at least remove a few pieces here and there, to let the most strange, new, beautifully sensitive and wondrously strong flowers emerge.
Scene from the 2019 Oper Köln production of Hamlet. Photo: Paul Leclaire
Many people have mixed memories about studying Shakespeare. One of my strongest is coming to the famous tale of the gloomy Dane in high school, and an English teacher expressing shock at being able to spout lengthy scenes from memory. That awe quickly morphed into annoyance when my impatience with what I perceived to be a reductive approach made itself known in a typically boisterous teenaged way. “Would you like to explain this passage then?” my teacher asked testily. I took her up on that offer. Passion for the play would subsequently manifest in numerous essays, reviews, poems, and theatre experiences, including playing the lead myself in an abridged university production that seemed key to my calling as a theatre artist at the time.
Owing to an equal love of opera, it has always been a source of disappointment that I’d never heard a version that satisfied, or, to my mind (and heart), fully expressed Hamlet‘s beautiful, potent mystery – not until, that is, I experienced the work of composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. Their Hamlet, with its nods to works like Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Elektra, is as much about the journey of the artist as it is about a gloomy Prince, and captures human connection (familial, romantic, inner) with every ounce of fraught complexity; the awful, awesome beauty of Hamlet‘s humanistic psychology pairing is very much a quiet, palpable force that creates momentum every ounce as much as it inspires contemplation. The theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone. I was (and remain) as much in awe of Jocelyn’s libretto as of Dean’s score; it’s a rare if precious experience to find both exerting such equal power, in such memorable and affecting ways.
Photo: Tony Hauser
Canada-born Jocelyn is a well-known theatre figure in Europe. He’s directed numerous works, including the French-language premieres of Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel (Théâtre de l’Ecrou, Fribourg), The Love of the Nightingale and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (both Atelier du Rhin, Colmar), The Liar by Corneille (Stratford Festival), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Atelier du Rhin) Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter by Tankred Dorst from his own translation, and Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (both Canadian Stage Company), as well as opera productions including Martinù’s Larmes de couteau and Alexandre Bis, Piccinni’s La Cecchina ossia la buona figliola, Boesmans’s Reigen, Gluck’s La Clemenza di Tito, Chabrier’s l’Étoile (all for Opéra National du Rhin), Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (for Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Bruxelles), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (for Oper Frankfurt). He wrote the libretto for La bal by composer Oscar Strasnoy, based on a story by Russian writer Irène Némirovsky; the opera was part of Die Trilogie der Frauen for Staatsoper Hamburg in 2010, which he directed and which also featured Schönberg’s Erwartung and Rihm’s Das Gehege. Jocelyn also wrote the libretto for Requiem, again with Strasnoy, and based on William Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun; that work was presented in 2014 at Teatro Colón in Strasnoy’s native Argentina.
As well as being known for his directing and writing work, Jocelyn has also worked extensively behind the scenes. In 1995, he joined the Centre de Formation Lyrique of the Opéra National de Paris, where he developed and presented programming of semi-staged operas in the amphitheatre of the Opéra Bastille. In 1998, he became Artistic and General Director of the Atelier du Rhin (Centre Dramatique) in Colmar, a position he would hold for a decade until being named as head of the Canadian Stage Company (2009-2018). In a 2017 interview with theatre writer Robert Cushman, Jocelyn was asked him about the style of theatre he’d hoped to encourage; one which “gives preponderance to the human body as a holder of expression“, he responded, adding that “(d)espite appearances, I’m a classicist.”
That classicist side was given wonderful expression with Hamlet, which had its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017, in a production directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by former Glyndebourne head honcho Vladimir Jurowski. At the time, I wrote in my review for the national Canadian newspaper The Star that Jocelyn’s reordering the narrative added a dramatic immediacy; there’s a psychological closeness that was achieved within and through his smart, insightful writing, one that blended seamlessly with Dean’s varied, beautifully complex score.
Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire
It’s an integration I suspect has deepened with Jocelyn’s own production of the opera, currently on in Cologne. Together with conductor (and composer) Duncan Ward and the Gurzenich-Orchester Köln , Oper Köln’s production (which opened on November 24th) marksHamlet‘s German premiere. The cast includes bass Joshua Bloom in the duel role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the Gravedigger, baritone Andrew Schroeder as Claudius, mezzo-soprano Dalia Schaechter as Gertrude, soprano Gloria Rehm as Ophelia, and, in the title role, tenor David Butt Philip, who sang the role of Laertes at the work’s 2017 premiere and has since performed Hamlet as well. Jocelyn and I chatted as he was in the midst of rehearsals just before opening.
How is your production of Hamlet going?
It’s going well! It’s a big opera, a huge piece in terms of its concept and in terms of its requirements. It really stretches to the limit the resources of any moderately large opera house that takes it on. So we’re stretching to the limit the resources of Oper Köln, but it’s going for the most part really well. It’s been special to see it all come together.
How much are you thinking back to the production at Glyndebourne, not just stylistically but overall? How much has that influenced what you’re doing now?
From a stylistic point of view, not at all; it was a really beautiful production and a wonderful way to discover the work in the context of opera — it went on to Australia, and it’ll be at a few more places in the coming years too, but this is a very different reading. There’s a very different series of priorities of things to bring to the fore in this production. It’s funny, I sent a note to (original director) Neil (Armfield) the day before rehearsals began here, thanking him for having created such a beautiful narrative production, because it enabled and forced me to not do that. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to test the resilience of the work to a more metaphorical reading, to a parable of some kind.
So this will be more abstract?
Yes, more abstract.
Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire
You’ve written libretti for other things but this feels different on a few levels; what’s it been like to direct Hamlet, and in Germany?
It’s interesting, I’ve always separated the works — the ones I did, La Paz, or Requiem for Cologne – when I wrote those, I wasn’t saying how I’m going to stage it; I was really trying to write a text that was going to inspire the composer and give the material needed for them, but this time even more so. Because it was Shakespeare and because it was Hamlet, and because I was not going to be directing it, I had a different kind of liberty in thinking things through and then offering them to Brett as material in which to work.
Doing it in Germany now… what’s marvelous about Germany is that they do, insofar as possible… there are resources that are made available. And there is a deep understanding of conceptual – more conceptual and more abstract – work. The audiences are looking for interpretation rather than illustration. And they’re looking for a clear perspective and a clear take, rather than a kind of more illustrative thing. So one feels a liberty working in Germany, in that it is perhaps more elastic than working for audiences that have a lesser habit of experiencing conceptual work.
And a famous play like Hamlet doesn’t have the same cultural baggage in Germany as it might for English-language audiences.
Definitely, the play is well-known, and for an English audience, it’s very different than for a German audience because a German audience will know a half dozen lines or so, but an English audience will know, for the most part, a hundred different lines from Hamlet – even if you don’t realize they come from Hamlet! The story will be known more or less clearly, so the way in which the libretto twists the story and rethinks things at times, that’s going to be much clearer for an Anglo-Saxon audience than for a German audience, but the objective of the libretto is not to have the audience say, “Oh look! He took that line here and put it there!” or “Oh what a funny twist there!” It’s very much its own thing as a story.
So in a way, working for a German audience is wonderful because either they get it or they don’t, whereas an Anglo-Saxon audience is often thinking, “Oh, isn’t that funny, that scene goes here in opera whereas it goes there in the play!” It can become a bit of a treasure hunt for English audiences, which is not the goal, but it can have that effect on audience members who know the text extremely well.
Photo: Paul Leclaire
So there’s a freedom working in Germany…
Yes, it’s a huge freedom to work on it here – and also a good way of making sure that the story works on its own without being compared to anything.
It’s not like you’re presenting Goethe!
What’s been your process working with the cast?
This is a very actor-heavy – or acting-heavy – opera and production. It really is like acting Shakespeare. You have maybe a quarter or a fifth of the text, but every singer has the full text in their minds – they’ve obviously all read Hamlet before coming into rehearsal. It does require huge dexterity with text. It’s not a text from a Bellini opera, it’s Shakespeare, and every word in the libretto comes from Hamlet except for a couple of chorus passages, so there’s a need for total versatility with language, that tasting, that love of language – the French say “dégustation” – that absolute enjoyment of the language on the tongue and in the mouth.
And because we’re working on a very bare stage, relationships are key, because there’s nothing to hide behind, so the veracity of what the singers are experiencing and communicating to each other and receiving from each other is absolutely essential. We also don’t have huge amounts of time, but before hitting the set itself we had four weeks of time in the rehearsal room to really massage out the essential elements of the opera, the essentially elements of the text, and really explore the spatial relationships and dynamics between characters. And again, time is always the most precious ally one can have when trying to deepen the relationships which will work, whether musically or textually or dramatically.
Photo: Alan Kerr
I would imagine Duncan Ward has been key to that also.
Duncan is one of those conductors of his generation who is most adept at contemporary music. He’s extraordinarily well-read musically and extremely sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding of the score. He was in the rehearsal room from the second week onwards, and he’s been not only a terrific ally but partner and collaborator, and he is really going to be the one to bring the show to life every evening, because he’s got a wonderful relationship with the orchestra and a wonderful relationship with the singers. He is amazing at holding all these musical textures and musical fabrics together.
The libretto and the score are very intimately linked in this work; how has that intimacy changed in terms of your approach in directing?
I think that we were very blessed, Brett and I, to come together over a piece such as Hamlet, and to have such similar tastes and such similar desires with regards to this work. There were some quite radical decisions I made as a librettist. I’d say the more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it; he could hear it. When you’re working with a composer, your chief goal is to write things that make him or her hear music and want to create a musical universe around it – so we were blessed in that sense.
In this production I’d say there are a few things that have changed: Brett has added a few bars of music – a few passages here and there, a little bit of chorus to a couple moments – and I added maybe two lines to the text. But I did this a year ago now so it’s in the new score, but there are things I felt had been missing in the original version, and I wanted to draw special attention to them in this version. I wouldn’t say things have changed; it’s more just the joy of rediscovering and taking full advantage of this marriage of text and music you were talking about.
Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire
So not change so much as evolution…
Yes, a good evolution. This piece is now out there, and hopefully what you’ve heard in terms of an integration of text and music is also heard by other opera houses and it gets produced around the world. Hopefully now it will be part of the 21st century repertory. We’ve been very lucky and very blessed; it went from Glyndebourne to Australia, and it will also be presented by a few organizations in the coming years. For a contemporary opera to have been done with so many houses within a few years of its creation is a pretty lucky thing! Obviously there is an appetite for cracking open this old chestnut and experiencing it in a new and hopefully pertinent way for the 21st century.
The Goethe-Schiller-Denkmal (Monument) by Ernst Rietschel in Weimar. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)
Lately I’ve found myself re-evaluating the past within the context of the present. It’s been an important and sometimes painful journey, for a variety of reasons both personal (disposing of photo albums, many of which were my mother’s) and professional (my slow if sure transition away from journalism). Through travels, research, readings, and various creative ruminations, I’ve come to appreciate just how deeply recontextualizing materials of the past can help us understand and appreciate new ways of being fully and completely present, however uncomfortable that may sometimes be; evolution is not, after all, supposed to be a comfortable process.
I suspect this is something Georg Katzer understood. The award-winning German composer, born in what is now Poland in 1935, was a pioneer of electronic new music in the German Democratic Republic. He founded the Studio for Electroacoustic Music in the 1980s, and made a career of redefining past to understand present, setting the stakes high for future modes of expression. The weight and influence of Europe’s shifting history through the decades lent him a ravenous curiosity for exploration of the past mixed with an enthusiasm for for redefining the present; he did so much with a twinkle in his eye as well rather than the furrowed brow of a serious artiste, which gives his work a discernible humanism, even amidst the plaintive bleeps and sighing bloops of works like “Steinelied I” (1984) and “Steinelied II” (2010). Listen to his wide-ranging oeuvre, which moves easily between lyrical brutality and brutal lyricism, and you’ll hear Bartok, Stravinsky, Lutowslawski and Zimmerman, as well as bits of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubauten. Sounds brush, bump, groan, and grind against each other in ways that are, even many decades after their creation, gripping, contemporary, and theatrical.
Georg Katzer (from ensemble unitedberlin program)
That theatricality is readily apparent in “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), premiered in Leipzig in 1975. A smart work that embraces various meta aspects of music-making, Szene was, at its inception, a meditation (and, it must be said, a sarcastic commentary) on the bureaucratic nature of the GDR and its uneasy relationship to cultural life and artistic expression. The work, first performed in 1994, was presented by German chamber group ensemble unitedberlin last month at the Konzerthaus Berlin for their 30th anniversary concert. As the program notes state, the piece is “one of the representatives of “Scenic Chamber Music” or “Instrumental Theatre,” in which performative aspects of music production and linguistic elements came to the fore.”
I’ve written about ensemble unitedberlin in the past (specifically in relation to composer Claude Vivier), and this concert was special in terms of its being a symbol of remembrance as well as anticipation; never did the word “present” feel so apt. Katzer has taken lines from Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe and placed them directly within the piece. Delivered by the conductor to the audience, the lines relate specifically to the nature of new composition, and concern a new piece written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn. As recorded by Eckermann:
Conversation from Sunday evening, January 14 1827:
I found a musical evening entertainment with Goethe, which was granted to him by the Eberwein family together with some members of the orchestra. Among the few listeners were: General Superintendent Röhr, Hofrat Vogel and some ladies. Goethe had wished to hear the quartet of a famous young composer, which was first performed. The twelve-year-old Karl Eberwein played the grand piano to Goethe’s great satisfaction, and indeed excellently, so that the quartet passed in every respect well executed.
“It is strange,” said Goethe, “where the most highly enhanced technique and mechanics lead the newest composers; their works are no longer music, they go beyond the level of human feelings, and one can no longer infer such things from one’s own mind and heart. How do you feel? It all sticks in my ears.” I said that I am not better in this case. “But the Allegro,” Goethe continued, “had character. This eternal whirling and turning showed me the witch dances of the Blockberg, and I found a view, which I could suppose to the strange music.”
It’s interesting to note that Mendelssohn and Goethe enjoyed a great friendship thereafter.
Katzer noted in the program notes for a 2016 presentation with the Dresden Sinfonietta that his inclusion of Goethe within “Szene” should “not be interpreted as malice towards the genius. Lack of understanding of new music is a widespread phenomenon and, as we see, not a new one.” His essential point is clear, driven home by the work’s closing scene: the musicians gathered around a spinning top, silently observing. Our perception of change and its inevitable nature is coloured by a near-unconscious wiring of a past we don’t want to remember, yet cannot forget, much less look away from.
Katzer passed away earlier this year — on May 7th, to be precise, which is the date Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made its world premiere, in 1824. The two composers shared a program last December thanks to the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, when Katzer’s “discorso” for orchestra was given its world premiere just prior to the orchestra’s annual New Year’s presentation ofBeethoven’s famous symphony. I thought about this strange confluence experiencing “Szene”, and of Beethoven’s reported meeting with the very man Katzer quotes. The composer created incidental music for Goethe’s 1788 drama Egmont, as well as lieder incorporating his texts. The two came from utterly different worlds — Goethe being Privy Counsellor at the Weimar court, Beethoven, decidedly revolutionary — but despite such vastly different experiences and worldviews, the composer was effusive in his praise of the writer, and Goethe may have enjoyed the new sounds Beethoven created, however much he would complain about his sticky ears to Eckermann just four years later. According to an account in Romain Rolland’s famous bookGoethe and Beethoven (1931):
On October 27th (1823) a Beethoven trio was played at Goethe’s house. On November 4th, in the great concert given at the Stadthaus in honour of Szymanowska, Beethoven figures twice on the program. The concert opened with the Fourth Symphony in B Flat, and after the interval his quintet, op. 16 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, was played. Thus Beethoven had the lion’s share, and without mentioning his name, Goethe confessed to Knebel that he was again “completely carried away by the whirlwind of sounds (da bin ich nun wieder in den Strudel der Tone hineingerissen).” Thus there had been opened to him a new world, the world of modern music which he had hitherto refused to accept — “durch Vermittelung eines Wesens, das Geniisse, die man immer ahndet und immer entbehrt, zu verwirklichen geschaffen ist (through the medium of one who has the gift of endowing with life those delights which we resent and of which we deprive ourselves).”
Classical music lovers tend to enjoy —nay, expect —the so-called canon to never change, let alone the ways it’s presented (something Washington Post classical writer Anne Midgette addresses in a recent piece). However, contemporary composers have mostly embraced change and risk, frequently at the cost of widespread popularity and acceptance; they, and the artists who perform and program them, stand at the vanguard of creative evolution, come hell or highwater, fully present of time, place, space, and relationships. The ensemble unitedberlin was formed at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989; like many German cultural institutions, it’s using 2019 to mark the changes wrought over three decades — how past merges with present, in sculpting possibilities for the future. As the program states, the group’s aim has been to explore “areas of tension, between the past and the future,” presenting works that incorporate and inspire a “joy of musical discovery.” Experiencing many works live that I’d not been given an opportunity to hear live before was not only a discovery, but a revelation; it’s been akin to squeezing out a tube of a color never seen before and then experimenting with its application on different surfaces. There are certain works I’m happy to take a (lengthy) break from, but contemporary works I heartily want to explore; I have ensemble unitedberlin, in part, to thank for stoking that long-suppressed curiosity.
Hans Jürgen Wenzel is one of those composers whose work I hope to know better. Along with “Szene”, his intriguing “Eröffnungsmusik” (opening music, 1978) was performed as part of their birthday celebrations; the program charmingly describes the composer (who passed away in 2009) as the “the initiator of the formation of the ensemble.” Wenzel was dedicated to introducing young people to contemporary music, and many of his students went on to become composers in their own right. It was a perfect opening to the evening, and enjoyed a perfect follow-up: the world premiere of young composer Stefan Beyer’s “зaukalt und windig” (cold and windy). Katzer’s “Szene” was followed by Vinko Globokar’s “Les Soliloques décortiqués”, premiered in 2016 by Ensemble Musikfabrik. The France-born Globokar, whose creative process involves writing music based around stories he’s written first, told The Globe & Mail in 2011:
“I was part of a group of friends, an avant-garde that was based on risk. The idea, collectively, was to find something new. But even if you didn’t find this end result, it was still okay, because you were exploring ideas. That kind of collective thinking we did has disappeared.”
Based on cultural experiences over the past few years, I’m not so sure that spirit has entirely disappeared — it’s just become more of an effort to find and subsequently commit to. It was a decidedly stirring experience, to observe Katzer’s widow interacting with Globokar (elegant in a suit), the young Beyer, and ensemble co-founder Andreas Brautigam casually interacting post-concert — generations of past and present, all moving into the future, in their own ways and methods. Here’s to the unbound joys of new discoveries, sonic and otherwise; may we never deprive ourselves of them, but welcome them, with open arms, clear ears, and brave hearts.