Tag: beauty

James Levine: A Reckoning

Met opera NYC

The Metropolitan Opera, New York. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Since the news broke last Saturday, I’ve debated with myself about whether or not I should write something. The news, in case you hadn’t heard, is a big story — the story — in classical music, involving serious allegations of sexual assault against conductor James Levine, from several men who were boys when the incidents unfolded.

The main reaction I’ve noted, after the first report (in the New York Post) came out, is “everyone knew” and “about time” and “how could anyone not know?” I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t. Say I’m ignorant, or stupid, that I’m a poseur with my head in the sand — much has been said about me, and worse than that, and will continue to be said about, and directed at me, in that vein. That’s fine. I didn’t know. Remembering the things my mother would whisper under her breath about the conductor, I suspect she harboured her own suspicions, all of which she never shared in any detailed way with me. I will never know what she was thinking, but I wish she was here now to talk to.

As I wrote in a past post, one which was difficult to write in its own way and which I contemplate now for different yet oddly similar reasons, Levine was a figure I grew up watching on TV and seeing in-person at the Met, including earlier this year. He was their mainstay, their guy, the one which, if various allegations are to be believed, was shielded by powerful forces determined to keep a popular maestro. No amount of damage control or back-pedalling can erase the massive abuse of power which was allowed to occur over four decades.  Such abuse by powerful men is not, as an historian friend pointed out to me, unusual; to paraphrase what he said, “they expect there will be no consequences.” It is terrible –sickening, horrendous, past words — to consider how such men keep being enabled, however, and to reckon with the damage wrought by such heinous wielding of power. Such enabling is, alas, too often done by the self-interested, by those keen to boost careers and coffers, to maintain image and income. Those whose trust was betrayed, hope squashed, love stepped on — they go on, endure, move forwards, or, as some have stated in subsequent interviews with Michael Cooper, they don’t.

Met opera lobby

The lobby of the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Both arts writers and music fans have been grappling with the news and with Levine’s musical legacy, as well as on what they should do with their recordings, the possible future of the Met, and how the news reflects on the classical community overall. Earlier tonight I put the finishing touches on an interview with tenor Frédéric Antoun, about The Exterminating Angel, a production he recently appeared in at the Metropolitan Opera, and I debated with myself, even as I hit  “publish”: Should I? Is this wrong? Am I horrible? Levine did not conduct this work (which was on the stages of the Salzburg Festival and Royal Opera before it reached NYC), nor was he involved with its production — but Levine’s decades-long involvement with the Met means he has, by sheer presence alone, shaped the organization, even if he doesn’t have direct involvement now. He stepped down as Music Director in April 2016 but was given the title of Music Director Emeritus at the close of that particular season. How much should I feature anything associated with the Met on my website? Should I wipe everything out? Edit things a bit? Make a point never to cover their work again?

There are no quick answers to these questions for me. There is also, to my mind, no need to punish artists like Antoun, or others who perform at the NYC institution. One can accept they perform there, even as one may choose to see them in other venues, if one so chooses. What to do with my memories of seeing Levine in Berlin recently are more problematic. I’m not sure what to do with the transcendent impression which fell over me like a starry blanket at the close of Mahler’s immense Third Symphony that cold final night in October — I don’t know what to say about the feeling of having experienced something deeply, utterly beautiful. There is no other word for it. Levine got a standing ovation (a true rarity in Berlin) and several curtain calls. Were we sick? Are we disgusting? Am I wrong to have been so moved? Should I throw my memory of beauty in the toilet? Is it now invalid?

met opera chandeliers

The chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Again, there are no easy answers (at least none I trust), and there is no smoothing over with any number of reductive “music is the answer” memes. Some will and indeed, have, said that the artist and their personal life must be separated; I think that is an entirely personal decision. I have trouble watching Woody Allen movies without the benefit of context; the same goes for the work of Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, and Leni Riefenstahl, to name a few I view their work through the lens of their lives; it is my choice, my privilege, and my coping mechanism. Context is everything. To separate one completely from the other, or to imply I would only consume their work solely because of their lives, simply isn’t my style. Experiencing beauty sometimes has a truly frightful price, and I’m not sure it’s worth it, as a music lover, writer, and assault survivor.

Maybe context has become my new blanket. Though it’s far less fancy, it’s warmer through storms, and soaks up, at least a bit, the puddles of sadness that sit around everything right now. It beats wrapping myself in the transparent sheets of deceit. Call me dim as you will, but at least I am no Emperor.

 

Opera ≠ Church

Simon Schnorr as Don Giovanni in Jacopo Spirei’s 2016 production
for Salzburger Landestheater. Photo: © Anna-Maria Löffelberger

People come to opera with many opinions and ideas. If they’ve never seen a production, or have only caught tidbits online or the television, have gone at the behest of a significant other for a special occasion, or, they’ve worked in the industry their entire lives in some capacity, everyone has an opinion: It’s the greatest art form there is. It’s stagnant. It sucks.

In speaking with director Jacopo Spirei recently, it seemed as if he was highly aware of all of these opinions, and moreover, had spent considerable time with groups who held a diversity of ideas around the art form. It’s this awareness, I suspect, that powers so much of his directing work; the Florence-based director has a powerful desire to reach through all the baggage a person carries (whether artist or audience member), to present something new and very immediate. Spirei, as I outlined in part 1 of our chat recently, spent the early part of his career working with British director Graham Vick, whose own stagings of operatic works have attracted their fair share of fans and critics. Vick is a figure who firmly believes in community involvement, and in reinforcing the art form as an intrinsic part of society.

Spirei has a similar approach. He has a number of acclaimed productions under his belt, including Rossini’s comic La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) for Theater an der Wien (Vienna) in 2012; another Rossini opera,  the beloved La Cenerentola (Cinderella), for Festival Internacional de Musica (Cartagena) in 2014. He’s also worked with the renowned Co-Opera Co., helming productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) for the London-based organization. Spirei’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte won the audience prize for best production of the 2012/2013 season at the Salzburger Landestheatre, and he also helmed Gluck’s The Pilgrims of Mecca (La rencontre imprévue, ou Les pèlerins de la Mecque) there in 2013. Spirei’s resume is long and impressive, and extremely varied.

As he mentioned in part one of my interview with him, the busy director has been behind a few versions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, including a popular, acclaimed version of the work staged at the Landestheater in 2011, and remounted in 2016. He’s set to direct Verdi’s Falstaff in Parma at the Festival Verdi in October.

With his recent San Francisco Opera debut,  Spirei was tasked with re-envisoning Gabriele Lavia’s 2011 production of Don Giovanni. The director and I spoke just on the cusp of the production’s opening (on now through June 30th); thoughts about the dastardly deeds of the Don, as well as the centrality of women in Mozart’s famous 1787 opera, led to a broader discussion on opera attracting new audiences, the vital role of education, and the particulars of opera fashion. To go casual or not to go casual? Read on.

You recently told Newsweek that in Italy, opera is more about “pretty pictures”; I was reminded of the ongoing debate between new and old productions. Some people love the contemporary take on works; others feel there should be a return to beauty.

Director Jacopo Spirei.

Yeah the problem is, what is beauty? It’s such a wide concept. When something you put onstage doesn’t help the story or doesn’t tell us anything, it hasn’t got a thing to say, then it has no place on our stages — it’s very simple. In a way you have to tell the story that is in the piece, that is written down; that’s where you start from. Of course you do it through your own intellect and creativity, but you cannot start decorating it; it doesn’t need that. The art form is absolutely fine on its own. What it needs is to be alive. It needs absolute essence, which is the live performance.

The joint work the director does with the conductor and the singers is to lift the opera from the page, to take it away from what’s written and recreate it, reinvent it. There’s no such a thing as pretty show or an ugly show; there’s a good show or a bad show. That doesn’t mean in-period not-in-period; somehow it’s a fake problem. If the work is good and relevant and done with honesty, then it’ll get through. Some work is provocative, some not, sometimes it want to be thought-provoking and hit something; each (production) has its own definition of beauty and of art, which makes us grow and develop.

… and some productions aim to be purposely unpleasant.

If you think about Caravaggio and a lot of his stuff, they’re beautiful paintings with incredibly morbid subjects: people without teeth, rotting away; fruit disintegrating. There’s a reason it’s rough, with that very harsh lighting. Beauty is, first of all, a completely subjective thing — I like purple maybe you like red, you see what I mean — in those terms it’s one thing. There are different styles, there’s brutalism, there’s a more decorative style. What I said about Italy and opera is not the fact that beauty is wrong, it’s just, instead of it being the obsession it used to be for this country — I mean, even Pasolini his own own version of beauty! — the theater has stopped developing, and become just a showcase of pretty costumes and nice scenery.

You mean museum pieces?

Right. So then you don’t need to do new productions — (old ones) were beautiful and had a lot of money (put toward them), a fantastic costume designer, what more do you need in life?

Gillian Ramm, Laura Nicorescu & Tamara Gura in Cosi fan tutte from Spirei’s production for Salzburger Landestheater.
Photo: © Christina Canaval

The Met is grappling with this right now; the tension between those who enjoy what is called traditional stagings, and the group who say that’s boring and doesn’t move opera forwards.

First of all I think theater should be a leader, not a follower. The theater should lead an audience, teach an audience, make an audience grow, otherwise you end up with what TV has become, which is an endless number of reality shows, with no imagination, no creativity. In that sense the theater has to lead, in a way that works at every level; you have to show your audience a path and take them down that path. That’s one element of it, of course; the other element is the constant discussion about tradition. I find that very entertaining!

When we refer to “tradition” we’re basically referring to operas in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a really narrow frame of time for almost 500 years of opera history. If you go and look at the operas written and performed in the 1920s and 1930s, the sets were different; if you look at some of the sets from the early music festivals, they did the most abstract, extreme productions that today would get completely trashed. We’re only referring to the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and little bit of the 1970s; what does it mean? Composers like Verdi cared so deeply about a piece, he would do anything to bring it to life. This debate on tradition, it means nothing!

What it is, is, it’s comfortable — and comfort is laziness. The comfort of it, it’s everything. Nowadays we live in a political world that is only looking backwards, thinking back at the supposed good old times, because we think we know what good old times were — but we never had good old times. Like, “oh remember the 1980s!”

Ines Reinhardt and Sergey Romanovsky in Spirei’s 2013 production of Gluck’s The Pilgrims of Mecca for Salzburger Landestheater.
Photo: © Christina Canaval

People romanticizing the past…

Yes! So we have to move forward; we have no choice. As human beings, there’s no going back.

Where does art and accessibility to newcomers, fit in? A lot of people have said to me that they find opera intimidating, they don’t know where to start, they think they won’t understand.

You’re absolutely right when you say “intimidated” — we just need to take the aura off it. It’s not a church, it doesn’t matter what you wear so long as you come and watch it. The San Francisco Opera is doing this thing where they’re showing the opera at the baseball stadium. It’s fantastic! I’ve been taking Uber cars around, the drivers all ask me where you from what you do, and when I tell them, they say, “Oh how cool, I’m curious!” And I say, listen if you want to see it, go to the baseball stadium, on thirtieth of June, you can see it, and they all say, this is great, cool!

The opening of the 2013-2014 Met Opera season; Eugene Onegin (with Anna Netrebko), broadcast live in Times Square.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s like the Met broadcasting its opening night in Times Square — I’ve gone to that more than once, and it’s fun. People bring thermoses and sandwiches. 

Wonderful! Really, there’s nothing wrong with the art form, it’s fine, it just needs to be taken to the people. Of course, if the people don’t come to the theater, the theater has to go to the people, and find a way to go to the people, maybe not via the big institutions — you need the big institutions to keep the art form alive — but you also need the new world of young companies to bring the artform to the people and even take the people into the theater, or not, at least then it’s an educated choice. People can then reasonably say, “I’ve seen it and I don’t like it” or “Wow, that’s great!”

At least plant the idea…

Yes.

My attitude is, if you do want to come with me to the opera house, please make an effort to look smart; I like doing something special, and it’s nice to see people having the desire to do that. That doesn’t mean opera is snotty or elitist —dressing up doesn’t mean those things. I feel like we have to demystify the opera house as an overall experience, and that extends to fashion.

Absolutely. If a person says, “I’m not wearing a suit but I’m still going,” in a way, from my point of view, that’s the priority (getting them in). It’s like going out on a Saturday night: you dress up, but it shouldn’t feel like, “OH MY GOD I HAVE TO PUT ON MY BEST TUX!”

Simon Schnorr und Sergey Romanovskys in Spirei’s 2013 production of Cosi fan tutti for Salzburger Landestheatre. Photo: Photo: © Christina Canaval

But seeing jeans and sneakers sometimes frustrates me; I feel like we’ve coddled everybody, especially in North America, to constantly feel the need for comfort, throughout every single experience. It seems as you say, lazy. You can look smart casual, but that’s not the same thing.

Ah, sneakers and jeans, you see them everywhere. You can spend more on jeans than an actual tuxedo, D&G and Cavalli make some very fancy jeans! Times change, and all that develops, it’s absolutely fine, and again, one can like it or not like it. You have all the right to say, “If you come with me, look decent” — I don’t have a problem. What I think is crucial is to bring opera to the people, as well as people to the opera.

Nowadays, unless you live in Germany or Austria or a few other countries, you don’t grow up with music, it’s not taught in schools, the opera house is not a place where you go. I worked a lot in Germany and Austria, and it’s completely part of the culture. You take your kids to it, they grow up watching music and go to the opera and they are completely unfazed by it. They are not shocked, they have a relationship to culture; they know what they’re talking about when they discuss it.

It’s woven into the fabric of society there.

Yes, moreso than in Italy. I’ve worked so little in Italy; life has brought me outside. There’s a lot one has to say “no” to; it also has to do with the funding, (Italian companies) can’t really plan ahead because they don’t know if they will have money next year or how much money they might have. Italy has been cutting things regularly, every year, sometimes mid-season. So theaters are trying. It’s harder for sure — but Italy has also mismanaged money for a really long time.

And now it’s catching up with them?

Of course.

Hannah Bradbury, Raimundas Juzuits, Florian Plock, Kristofer Lundin und Lavinia Bini in Spirei’s 2016 production of Don Giovanni for Salzburger Landestheater. Photo: © Anna-Maria Löffelberger

It’s always the arts that gets cut first…

Always, and it’s the biggest mistake a society can make.

Education and arts are essential; theater is essential; if you study it, if you go, if you do it, you learn to be in somebody else’s clothes, somebody else’s problems, you start to empathize with those problems and become more tolerant and less judgemental, you are a better person. And being an audience in a theater makes you a better person also. It teaches you to be in a room packed with other people, and to really listen to something, not interfering with it or with others, but sharing an experience.

Drawing Miss Jessica

The world of fashion is one I have a contentious relationship with. When I was a child I wanted to be a fashion designer. I understood the world visually, via style, first, and I would constantly be feeling fabrics and drawing little stick figures with dresses, flourishes of lace, satin, sequins, and ribbons in place. I dressed up Barbies, even cutting and dying their blonde tresses to match a look I was going for with each of them. When the then-newly-minted Fashion Television came on, I watched with saucer-eyes as girl after girl pranced down bright runways in all manner of thing beautiful: big hats, heely boots, swooshing wraps, tight skirts. It struck me as glamorous, theatrical, and exciting.

As I grew older, my fascination with fashion changed, transforming and integrating itself with my other pursuits, and into a passion for visual art, performance, and music. Fashion felt insubstantial, and in some cases, even cruel. My relationships with those in the non-profit world, coupled with my own research, gave me shudders when I learned the process of harvesting, manufacture and production involves a fair bit of exploitation. A recent clip of a current BBC World series hit me, as an Indian woman, formerly a garment factory worker, expresses the same ideas. It’s troubling, and it makes that “faaabulous dahlings” look at little less… um, fabulous. Never mind the narrow, old-fashioned ideas of what constitutes beauty (specifically female beauty) or presentation; the idea that a tall, thin, hipless, white girl of 18 looks better on a long (read: boring) runway, and is part-and-parcel of the “fantasy” fashion sells is… utter nonsense. My fantasy involves full hips, big lips, crooked noses, and lack of poses, standing, talking, sharing, connecting. Take that, Karl Lagerfeld.

So I was really impressed, happy, and intrigued when I attended the show for Canadian designer Jessica Jensen last fall. It was set in an art studio, and it featured all size, shape, and race of woman touching and feeling the garments, placed on faceless mannequins throughout the space. It was Warholian, experimental, daring, and very unusual. Jensen has since gone on to have a trunk show in Toronto, and is getting all kind of kudos for her elegant, comfortable designs and creative, curious approach. Also? She’s ethical, which only makes her more fashionable, if you ask me. And her connection to art, as you’ll read, is undeniable. Maybe, just maybe, my faith in fashion is being slowly restored.

What was the first piece of fashion you saw that made you want to go into the fashion world?

I can’t pin it down to a piece of fashion that I saw. I just remember opening a large trunk full of fabrics in my mother’s art studio and immediately asking her to teach me to sew. I wasn’t quite patient enough for her to share her expertise… so I hopped on the machine and just played and created with no real understanding of the technical details behind the process. I knew at a very young age that I would go into fashion… by Grade 7 I had my heart set on attending Ryerson. Although I toyed with the idea of architecture as a career, I only ever applied for the fashion program at Ryerson. My parents weren’t surprised by my confidence when not applying for other programs as a back-up plan. I was sure of myself and a little naive regarding the competition.

Do you have a favorite visual artist who influences your work?

In all honesty, my favorite visual artist is my husband. He sees the world very much as I do and translates his romantic and nostalgic sensibility into his work. I’m also regularly influenced by other artists, from openings, readings and films that I have recently viewed. Every artist has a unique perspective on life and there is always something from each that I can draw on for inspiration.


Your autumn show, at the Thrush Holmes studio, was really memorable for its mix of art, fashion, and conceptual design; how did this event come about? How much has his work been an influence on you?

Thrush has always been a strong influence in my life. We grew up in the same town, took art class together in high school and moved to Toronto within a year of each other. He remains a close friend of mine and Joshua’s. I would say that the three of us are constantly competing, motivating and inspiring one another. Thrush’s Gallery is very comforting to me and no other venue seemed to hold the same impact as his. The structure itself parallels his character of modest grandeur. Joshua’s landscapes also, despite their size, speak softly and the venue allowed them to breathe along with my collection. I wanted the show to hang like an exhibit, allowing the product to speak for itself and enabling the audience a chance to view it the way they would a work of art, appreciating the detailed hand-work that goes into each piece.

Furthermore, I wanted our guests to use the installation as a way to better understand the story behind the product: the visual inspiration, the design illustrations, the campaign images, the campaign video, and lastly the product itself. I never thought about how it would be perceived. I spend more evenings at art openings than I do fashion shows and I am of the strong opinion that designers are also artists. Fashion is simply a different medium and it is a shame that the audience is only given 60 seconds as it comes down a runway to see it and appreciate it. So much is lost in the distance between the viewer and the model.


When we spoke last Fall, you emphasized how it was important to you to meet the people who make your designs. How much do you see the fashion world changing to a more conscious kind of ethos when it comes to sourcing and production?

I’d like to say its making drastic improvements, but that would be a falsity. The majority of product sold in North America is manufactured to be competitive in price – a strong consumer demand. There is of course a trend to make socially responsible decisions wherever possible. Even Walmart is making these changes in their own way. I am in a position where my product is not solely driven by cost, and therefore I have the luxury of carefully choosing who I work with. Every worker that I employ in Toronto, New York, Italy and China is skilled in their work, and each takes pride in what they do. I try and meet everyone that works on my product; this way they know how much I care for it and they try to emulate the same respect and pride.

You’re known primarily for handbags and leathers, but you’re also into clothing now too -how difficult was it to expand? Or was expansion always in the cards for you?

It has always been in the cards. I’m still testing the market, slowly, with ready-to-wear, and I won’t launch a full apparel collection for quite sometime. My core business is leather goods and it is important to me to build my customer base before I expand into other product categories. With that said, I also plan on expanding into footwear, jewelry, eyewear, fragrance, home goods, etc in years to come. My vision for Jessica Jensen is a lifestyle brand providing modern day women with effortless style for their everyday lives.

What is your definition of “style” in the 21st century?

21st Century style, to me, is a strong sense of self and the appreciation for times past fused with a new perspective.

More info on Jessica Jensen here.
Special thanks to Tatiana for arranging, Kimberly for photos, and Jessica, for … being fabulous.

Hurts, Wrinkles, Desire (aka Life)

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing the dulcet tones of Shelagh Rogers float across my office. Shelagh was the host of a program on CBC Radio (since canceled) called Sounds Like Canada, but has since gone on to host a weekly literary program, The Next Chapter. Today’s show had a distinct theme: bleak endings and new beginnings, particularly related to matters of the heart. With the yearly Valentine’s Day assault kicking into high gear, it seemed a particularly timely topic, with a refreshingly bittersweet twist.

One of Shelagh’s guests was Mary-Jo Eustace, the spurned ex-wife of actor Dean McDermott, who infamously left her for Tori Spelling and went on to do reality television. She has a new book about her experience called Divorce Sucks and has been featured in Hello! Canada as well as Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Joy Behar, Access Hollywood, Extra, Inside Edition, Bonnie Hunt, People Magazine and US Weekly. I interviewed Mary-Jo Eustace myself around this time last year. She was co-hosting a cooking show with Canadian food personality Ken Kostick called He Said, She Said. Along with yummy, easy-to-prep recipes, the show featured witty, sometimes salty exchanges of the two acid-tongued hosts. I was eager to meet them and learn more about their chemistry and how they come up with their food ideas.

I was not interested in the tawdry details of her break-up. I’d been warned by the publicist not to broach the topic of Mary-Jo’s personal life, I didn’t, in truth, have any interest in wading into those waters; they were, to me, too deep, too painful, and frankly, none of my business. And, being a foodie, I was more interested in her relationship to food and her viewers. She was polite and classy in answering my questions but I sensed a wary kind of judgment as well, manifest in a few brief barbs related to what she perceived to be my youth.

Regardless of this, I sensed a real sadness about her, and I left the interview feeling her anger was really a ruse covering a deeper wound. I also sensed an intense worry over her age and its relationship to her potential desirability as a woman. Looking at my own wrinkles and bumps lately, I sense that anxiety too. Media outlets can push the “elegance” of all the Meryl Streeps and Helen Mirrens they like -the fact remains that they’re not known as smoking hot babes. If you’re over 30, how do you compete with the like of Elisha, Jessica, Megan, et al? The truth is: you don’t. Self-acceptance is a long road, and it’s certainly made harder with an unquestioned man-boy culture that deems female aging to be equated with worthlessness -or worse, sexual repellance.

Where did this come from? I saw photos of Madonna in W Magazine recently, and I was utterly inspired. She may have had work done, but who cares? She looks glammy, vampy, campy, unapologetic, and utterly present. “Would it sound better if I was a man?” she whispers knowingly in her song, “Human Nature“. I have to wonder if the same spirit applies to women who age loudly, unapologetically, with sexual aplomb, blazing confidence, searing intelligence, and scalding wit, wearing heartbreak, healing, and a hard-won wisdom loudly and proudly. I can only hope that, like Mary-Jo, Madge, and yes, Nigella, I can embody a few of these qualities. Me, go gently into that good night? I don’t think so. But I wouldn’t mind being called a smoking hot babe one more time.

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