Tag: history (Page 1 of 2)

Dancing With Ghosts In Berlin

Berliner Dom

In Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Landing in Berlin from a recent (and generally difficult) trip to Italy was bumpy but oddly calming. A violent storm was brewing, its intensity on a slow, fierce climb as the evening progressed. In some strange way, the scene felt, through gale-force winds and lashing rains, like a brusque reminder: “This is nichts; there’s so much left to see and to do…!”

One of those things was, mundane as it may sound, making a trip to the grocery store; I was tired but hungry, desperately craving a paprikas dip I’d come to know and love during my frequent visits to the city of late.

Supermarkets are, for me, fascinating places, for what they reveal as much for what they conceal in terms of cultural indicators. At my regular, it’s easy to find Eastern European things; paprikas-infused everything (not just dips but jarred sauce, flavoured meats, salads) are right alongside items like tabouleh, curry, tagines — items readily available in most Canadian supermarkets, especially over the last few decades. My experience of other cultures has come largely through music as well as food, and it’s nice to be able to buy harira, chana masala, fish sauce, pierogies, piri piri, and uborkasalata all in one go. Much as people may roll eyes and say it’s a silly, small thing, it isn’t for me.

Philharmonie Berlin night

The exterior of the Philharmonie at night. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Taking things for granted is something I’ve never been comfortable with. Distressing news from Poland recently has made me reflect carefully on my own Eastern European roots (extant on both sides of my parents’ respective backgrounds), on being a child who was raised by a culture-loving single woman in the highly unfashionable suburbs, on the role that culture plays in every aspect of my life — including its filling the many gaping holes left by absent family, chosen and not. I don’t take anything for granted; I can’t afford that luxury.

I don’t know if I would label it a luxury, but it is certainly good to have been raised without the spectre of war or obliteration. Again, that sounds obvious and silly, but for me, it isn’t. This past Saturday was Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in America, I have developed complicated feelings toward this day, mainly owing to something shared by a relative from my father’s side (who I barely knew) had shared years ago: a relative of ours perished in the Second World War, fighting, as she put it, “on the wrong side.” It has always been hard for me to know what to do with this information. Alternately, my maternal grandfather (who I didn’t know either) was an immigrant to Canada, who had been decorated for  bravery in the First World War, fighting for Britain, and later went on to be a trapper. Both my parents also have Jewish ancestors, a discovery I made through investigations years ago. It’s difficult to reconcile these various facets, never having known any of my relatives. They are all ghosts, frustratingly faceless and maddeningly nameless, dancing in and through my imagination, and I feel that dance keenly every time I’m in Berlin.

Barenboim conductor

Conductor Daniel Barenboim. (Photo:© Holger Kettner)

My mother let go of all her connections with my father (who had been a violinist) when they divorced, save for the one to music – the force which initially drew them together so powerfully. Daniel Barenboim, the Argentine-Israeli pianist/conductor, General Director of the Staatskapelle Berlin, and also the co-founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, who is celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow, expressed things so well at a concert in post-Brexit Britain in July:

… if a French citizen wants to learn Goethe he must have a translation. But he doesn’t need a translation for the Beethoven symphonies. This is important. This is why music is so important. And this isolationist tendencies and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is something that is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation.

I thought of these words recalling one of many special events I attended while in Berlin, American conductor James Levine leading the celebrated Staatskapelle Berlin in Mahler’s Third Symphony; it was, to quote one German media outlet, “Ein Jahrhundertkonzert” (“a concert of the century”). Levine was General Music Director and Chief Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC for 45 years, and has conducted close to 2500 performance of 85 different operas; among many accomplishments, he founded the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and has received a slew of awards and citations throughout his decades-long career.

Levine Berlin Staatskapelle

Maestro Levine with the Staatskapelle Berlin, October 31, 2017. (Photo: © Thomas Bartilla)

I grew up watching Maestro Levine (who is now 74 years old) conduct, both live and on TV; for me, it was part of my own education, one which continues in so many forms. I have vivid memories of the very beautiful Idomeneo Levine led at the Met last winter, to say nothing of the many times I watched him lead the Met Orchestra with my mother. It was very special to experience the work of someone whose work I’ve followed for so long, conducting at one of my favorite venues, playing the work of one of my favorite composers, in one of my favorite cities. The concert was a reminder of the special relationship between Maestros Barenboim and Levine (the former invited the latter), both of whom have worked around one another for decades. Levine, using a specially-installed ramp, led a deeply operatic rendering of the longest work in the standard symphonic repertoire, with a combination of elegant control, deliberate pacing, and a pointedly elegiac tone through even playful movements; he carefully shaped the work’s many moments of explosive intensity into something precious and wonderfully contemplative.

The five-movement work (given an intermission after its lengthy first section) gained an immense amount of thoughtfulness; this wasn’t about throwing a giant, over-filled platter in front of you, but rather, elegantly presenting small plates of delicately-curated specialties, every morsel both beautiful and tasty. Soloist/mezzo soprano Violetta Urmana and the Staatsopernchor (State opera chorus) and Kinderchor der Staatsoper (Children’s choir), together with lustrous string and horn sections, were carefully-treated ingredients, utilizing lovely legato phrasing and modulating textures. The effect was one of a whispered grandiosity.

Levine Beriln Mahler

Maestro Levine at the Philharmonie. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

History didn’t impose on that particular evening, but in light of the news from Poland, as well as learning about histories I didn’t fully know and stories still unfolding, I’ve been confronting past, present, and future, in micro and macro ways; a Jewish conductor, leading the work of a Jewish composer, of an orchestra led by another Jewish conductor, would not have been welcome in Berlin a few short decades ago, and indeed, may not be welcomed by certain individuals now. Again, to quote Barenboim (from his website), “(n)ationalism is the opposite of true patriotism, and the further fostering of nationalist sentiment would be the worst case-scenario for us all.” Which Europe is supposedly being fought over, and died for? What should the role of culture be, especially in the 21st century? Is there any hope left? May I not enjoy paprikas and tagine together?

I want to say a hearty” ja” and “Na sicher” (“of course”), and remind myself of that mantra whispered amidst the lashing rains and howling winds as I landed: “This is nichts; there’s so much left to see and to do…!”

So very much.

Travels In Italy: Dolce e brutto

San Michele Arcangelo, the church where Verdi was baptized and was later an organist. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Two weeks ago I was touring the lands of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi in Emilia Romagna, northern Italy: the place he was born and raised, the splendid home of his benefactor, the lush gardens he would walk through. Those were the good parts.

Any sentimentality or indeed, romanticism, which so many feel in traveling to Italy, has been largely scrubbed out; never, in all of my travels, I felt more aware of my status — my vulnerability — as a woman. While there are finger-waggers who will tut-tut with inevitable “you should haves” and well-meaning “if only you hads” (instincts I find frustratingly passive-aggressive if not outright patronizing)  I stand by the validity of my reactions, deeply aware of the various costs of singledom as a woman, the frequently taken-for-granted privilege of coupledom, and the need to accept the wildly different realities of each, particularly within the wider context of travel experiences. I got to see a part of Italy very few people get to see, a unique experience to be sure, but one that comes with a bitter recognition in realizing that my only return to the country will be as either part of a tour, or for quick excursions to very specific places, namely Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, and of course, Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

A rose on the property of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

In retrospect, I wonder what Verdi, a man who felt such a clear kinship with the so-called “common man,” would have made of my experiences in his country as a woman in the 21st century. Would he have been appalled, I wonder, by the cat-calls, the leering, the begging? Being a solo woman traveler opened the door to an ugly jarful of assumptions, which led to harrowing experiences: theft, harassment, manipulation, and (as was the depressingly repeated case in so many restaurants), being totally ignored. What would Verdi have made of it all? What would he have made of my wrists being grabbed by a older woman wanting money? Or waiters running to serve amorous couples but consistently ignoring my inquiries about a missing lunch and requests for another glass of Lambrusco? Or of personal items being stolen from an abode? What of the forced kissing and repeated fondling after accepting help with luggage?  What am I to make of these experiences? Are they operatic? Is it “Italy being Italy” ? Should I not be bothered? Was it my fault? Did I somehow “ask for it?” Did I deserve it because I was alone?

In any terrible situation (or series of them), there are always minuscule shards of light, and it’s these shards I have to pick through now, with the benefit of hindsight. I will always remember the free shot of espresso provided by a friendly woman in a bustling shop in Parma; the plate of sandwiches set before me in a cafe by another woman who gave me a knowing nod when she saw I was alone; the warm, expressive tone of my tour guide at Villa Verdi (the composer’s primary residence for many decades), as I struggled in my limited Italian to understand her every detail. All of us were above a certain age, all of us perhaps had some shared understanding we couldn’t articulate. I remember these moments, cherish them, and I’ve taken a friend’s advice to try and focus on good things, like these moments, and the ones provided via music and history.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Jacopo Spirei’s Falstaff was my favorite production, and I don’t write that purely because I interviewed him about it before I left. Smart, funny, timely, and with a marvellously human lead performance by Roberto de Candia, the production (presented at the Teatro Regio di Parma as part of this year’s edition of Festival Verdi) was a true standout, and I wasn’t alone in that reaction, as chats with members of a refreshingly friendly British tour group revealed. Spirei placed the action in a familiar present, and filled the scene with very familiar people. De Candia played Falstaff as a kind of slobbish everyman, notably lacking the cutesy quality so common to characterizations. Instead, he was a kind of bar pig whom no one wanted to spend much time around — women especially; Falstaff wasn’t cuddly and harmless, he was slovenly and horrible. Only through his spectacular humiliation did he becomes semi-tolerable. The production made it abundantly clear that a character like Falstaff must be brought low in order to be raised once more, not as the phoenix, but as more of a messy pigeon who pecks around rotting porticos, and has to be kept in line with brooms and hoses every now and again.

Portrait of Verdi by Giuseppe Boldini, 1866.

I thought of Sir John Falstaff when I went to Villa Verdi some days later, because, as with Spirei’s magnificent production, I was being allowed to glimpse a vivid humanity which lives beneath an image. The house is located just outside the town of Busseto, roughly 40-odd kilometres north of Parma. Verdi supervised its construction, and, together with lady love (and soprano) Giuseppina Streponi, moved in in 1851. The house contains a number of mementos, as one might expect, all carefully and lovingly displayed.

Observing the bed in which Verdi died in 1901 (which had been shipped from the Grand Hotel in Milan) and various personal effects (including letters, knick-knacks, and the top hat and scarf he wears in Boldini’s famous portrait), a portrait of a good man dedicated to music and the people he loved emerges. It sounds hokey, but somehow, it wasn’t — but it was odd to walk around the living quarters of someone whose music was the soundtrack of large swaths of my life, to say nothing of my mother’s; it was ordinary and yet not, simple and yet grand, intimate and epic, all at once. Two pianos on which Verdi composed his works (early and later) were there, a clear case covering their keys. I stared at those pianos, longing to touch them. (No photos are allowed inside the house, alas.) I couldn’t rip my eyes off the second instrument on which he had composed Aida; this epic of the opera world, this contentious, difficult piece, with clashing ideologies and a gorgeously intimate subtext about loving the wrong person in the wrong time, “Celeste Aida” and the so-called “Triumphal March” — all that was done on the simple, upright piano sitting before me.

Gelling those reactions with the personal effects (to say nothing of the little section on Wagner) was surreal but also beautiful. I wish I could have had a few moments to stand in that room and take it all in, quietly, thoughtfully; it was one of the rare times during my travels in Italy that I actually wanted to be alone.

Verdi house

The exterior of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

A more fulsome piece about my visit to Villa Verdi and the town of Busseto is set to appear in a future edition of  Opera Canada magazine, but at this website, expect a piece (soon) about a very unique version of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) presented in Reggio Emilia, which featured members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Italian entertainer Elio. Mozart’s opera has been on my mind a lot lately, because it is, as Komische Oper head honcho Barry Kosky rightly has noted, a work infused with a deep loneliness, and that quality is one which haunted me throughout Italy. Perhaps it was the absence of my mother, the social isolation that comes with being an independent woman of certain means, an overall disappointment… whatever the case: I am happy to have seen and experienced the things I did in Italy — and it will take a lot to get me to return.

Spirei Stages Falstaff In Parma

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Every time I hear about an opera based on a play, my antenna goes up.

I was a theatre writer before I was an opera writer, and a theatre performer and aficionado before all of that. In my youth I spent countless hours pouring over journals, books, and audio recordings of works by (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) Pinter, Beckett, Miller, Pirandello, Artaud, O’Casey, Orton, Moliere, and of course, Shakespeare. When my mother would take me to operas based on plays, I would always wince, thinking, “surely this won’t be as good as the original.” Ah, youth.

Living in Dublin and London allowed for many fantastic nights of theatre, with some of my favorite moments unfolding at (or being connected with) the Almeida Theatre in Islington, north London. When Jonathan Kent, whose work I had long admired, moved into opera, I was immediately intrigued. The flow between the worlds of theatre and opera has always been a natural one, of course, but owing to youthful arrogance (and more than a bit of romance around the world of theatre), I couldn’t see or appreciate it clearly. I still love theatre but whenever I go now, I find myself missing the music.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff and Sonia Prina as Mrs. Quickly (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Opera is, of course, a fluid art form rich in drama and rife with possibilities for presentation, something various head honchos in opera know and riff on, to frequently wondrous effect. (See: Barry Kosky’s work, especially with Komische Oper Berlin; the work of Pierre Audi and Robert Carsen;  the recent 017 Festival, courtesy Opera Phildelphia, for just a few examples.) Making opera theatrically gripping isn’t always easy, however much creativity, talent, and goodwill is extant.

When it comes to staging the work of Giuseppe Verdi, who adored the work of Shakespeare, things can get even more sticky. A director is faced with certain choices: do the stodgy Shakespeare thing, involving various shades of grey and frilly collars? Or do super-high-concept, involving surreal set pieces and bizarre effects? Listening to the music and text, together, as one unit, is of course, the director’s job. Italian director Jacopo Spirei excels in integrating drama, visuals, theatricality and music into one satisfying whole. He gets opera, he gets theatre, he gets why you might be resistant to combining them  — and he thinks you should come anyway.

I first spoke with Jacopo earlier this year when he directed Don Giovanni at the San Francisco Opera, in a remount of a work originally done by Gabriel Lavia in 2011. He’s just opened his entirely-own production of Falstaff at the Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy. Having gotten his start working with British director Graham Vick (who has a production of Stiffelio at this year’s Festival Verdi involving the audience standing and moving), I thought Spirei’s thoughts around the theatre-meets-opera issue would be very valuable.

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and involves the jocular title character, Sir John Falstaff, in various misadventures with a variety of ladies and angry husbands. Basically, Sir John’s giant ego gets him in trouble. Frequently played as a jolly big man with a beard and a rolling laugh, this famous literary character is often presented as the stuff of stage comedy, a figure we laugh with and laugh at, a bon vivant whose lust for life knows no bounds. This is fun, but I wondered if Jacopo saw something more; the photos of the production (which I will be seeing the end of this month) seem to suggest so, with a dirty Union Jack flag being used at various points, to say nothing of baritone Roberto de Candia’s dishevelled appearance and modern dress. What was Jacopo thinking as he directed this in one of Italy’s most notoriously fussy houses for opera? Find out.

How is directing an opera based on Shakespeare different?

We could say that Verdi and Shakespeare is a very happy match; whenever the two have met great art has been produced.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Who is Sir John Falstaff? What does he have to say to us in 2017?

It’s easier to say what Falstaff is not: he’s not a moral creature, he’s not young, he’s not thin, but he has been in the past all of these things. Falstaff is a man who has known glory, wealth, poverty, defeat and survived through it all with a smile and a philosophy. He tells us how morals and honor are just words created but mankind. He’s a man who survives, who values a good glass of wine more than many words; at the same time he’s a man who represents old values in a changing society, so he’s a character that, like every human being, lives in a constant contradiction. He does not understand the modern world but also wants to participate in it, does not want to let go, wants to show that he still “has it.” I can’t think of anything more actual than that — we live in a “like” obsessed society where youth and beauty is the only value. It’s not easy being old today!!!

There is a tendency with many productions of Falstaff to emphasize the comic aspects; your production seems more serious and thoughtful. Why this approach?

The opera is funny, but not comic. It’s an opera about different stages of life, and has a strong dose of cynicism; it’s a comedy with teeth! I have approached the opera from the text, like Verdi did, so I’ve developed what’s on the page, I have researched with the cast and what we’ve discovered is what we are presenting to the audience today.

The cast of ‘Falstaff’ (Photo Roberto Ricci)

The design sense of this production is very unique: contemporary, somewhat expressionist, familiar. What were your visual influences? What was your process with designer Nikolaus Webern?

With Nikolaus we always start from the text and we discuss a lot before even starting to design. One big element  that inspired us is the weight of the protagonist that creates an imbalance in the perfect lives of Windsor’s bourgeois world, so we have worked on this loss of balance in life.

A great visual influence for me came from all the years working at Glyndebourne, so the village, the house, the pub — they’re somewhat related to those years where I was assisting Graham Vick and reviving his shows in this magical festival. You can see in the show the village of Lewes, the house of the owners of the festival and in fact. almost every single pub in the neighbourhood.

Giorgio Caoduro (Ford) in a scene from ‘Falstaff’ (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

How much did Brexit influence your direction with this work?

Funny you ask — whenever I presented the production to the cast and the theatre I said, “Falstaff at the time of Brexit.” In a way there is a relationship to what’s happening to England now, but I’ve treated it more as an example than anything else. I believe we have a lot to learn from what England is going through politically and socially. I don’t and never believed that division is the answer. In a bizarre way England is behaving like Falstaff, still thinking an Empire is possible and not accepting reality and how the world has changed. Brexit has been a very divisive subject within England and Great Britain in general.

What’s it like to direct at Festival Verdi in Parma, a city known for its strong opera opinions?

It’s an honor to be directing at this prestigious festival next to names like Vick and (Hugo) De Ana (directing Jerusalem at the Festival Verdi this year); I was thrilled at the idea of working in Verdi’s land for an audience that loves and deeply knows Verdi. I enjoyed the process, never fearing any good or bad reaction from the audience. As long as you are loyal to your vision, there’s nothing to fear.

Old World, Brand New

Philadelphia’s Academy of Music  (Photo: B. Krist)

Welcome to The Opera Queen.

The name, as you will learn in the “About Me” section, is firmly done with tongue in cheek, and in no way implies this site is about one art form alone. How could it be? Opera itself incorporates so many disciplines — music, theatre, visual art, dance, literature — and my tastes and passion are too wide to ever focus on one art form. The name actually comes from a friend who teasingly called me “the opera queen” in 2015, when I decided to more fully immerse myself in reporting on the art form following the passing of my opera-loving mother in 2015. (There’s also the fact my first and last names are frequently misspelled; theoperaqueen.com eliminates the possibility of any confusion, I hope.) The name was chosen with a playful spirit (and in the interests of clarity), though hopefully you’ll find a variety of things here, both playful and serious, vivacious and thought-provoking, joyous and contemplative.

This premiere post integrates so many of the things I believe in when it comes to culture; it is being done from Berlin, a city I seem to be visiting frequently. I was here in both January and May, each time for opera-heavy visits; this time I’m attending the Musikfest portion of annual Berliner Festspiele, (which is considerably, and wonderfully, heavy on symphonic work. (Look for a full report in a future edition of Opera Canada magazine.) Tonight I am seeing Riccardo Chailly conduct the Filarmonica della Scala, whom I saw at last year’s Salzburg Festival, with a program chalk-full of Verdi works. “It is an orchestra which is living daily with opera,” Chailly said recently.

A scene from Komsiche Oper Berlin’s “The Magic Flute”  (Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera; (©) Copyright 2013 Robert Millard www.MillardPhotos.com)

Lots of people live that way, I think, including David Devan, General Director and President of Opera Philadelphia. A fellow Canadian who’s been with OP since the mid 2000s, Devan is the driving force behind the company’s visionary new 017 Festival, which focuses solely on contemporary work. You won’t find any Verdi at 017 — but you will find Mozart, specifically The Magic Flute, and more specifically yet, the famous Komische Oper Berlin production. Also being presented during the 017 Festival is the world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, by an incredible team of people: composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones. The work explores a painful episode in Philadelphia’s history, and speaks to very timely issues of race, politics, and power. The Wake World, another world premiere (by Opera Philly’s composer-in-residence, David Hertzberg), is being presented in the famous galleries of The Barnes Foundation, and brings together the work of physician and collector Dr. Albert Barnes, and British magician and occultist Aleister Crowley, for what OP terms “a mystical world of hallucinatory vividness.”

The creators of “We Shall Not Be Moved”, L-R Daniel Bernard Roumain, Bill T. Jones, Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Photo: Dave DiRentis)

Devan’s vision is, as you will hear, wide-ranging and very inclusive; he’s worked to make an old art form, in an old and very historic city, into something entirely for and of the 21st century, while still firmly retaining all the flavour, beauty, drama, and originality of opera, in and of itself. Devan’s ideas about audiences, art, and engagement are so thoughtful, and so worth considering, not for purely administrators — but for artists, creators, and yes, arts media as well.

The Opera Queen is officially here — to entertain and delight, yes, but to make you think as well. I hope you’ll enjoy.

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.

“You Never Get To The Bottom Of It”

L-R Erwin Schrott as Leporello, Ana Maria Martinez as Donna Elvira, Erin Wall as Donna Anna, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni. Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Is opera misunderstood?

When asked this question in 2007, British director Graham Vick said, “Yes, in that people believe they need to be educated about opera to understand it. Those who respond to it viscerally and emotionally are the ones who understand it best.”
This is something that I deeply relate to, having grown up with, and been raised by, a woman who, though not super educated about opera, responded in highly visceral, emotional ways to what she heard, so much so that on Saturday afternoons she’d stand in the middle of aisles at the local supermarket, radio earphones tilted back and nearly falling off her head, her mouth hanging open, her palms up, listening to live broadcasts from the Met, as fellow shoppers shot her dirty looks and angled their carts around her. As a teenager, I was mortified; as an adult, I understand, even if I don’t emulate my mother’s grocery store habits. (Yet.)

Vick is a director known for his experimental approach. People have strong opinions about his work; some love and whole-heartedly applaud it, others think it’s overwrought, silly, dumbed-down. While I’ve not seen any of his work live (that will change soon, I hope), I think Vick is one of those people who considers himself something of an ambassador for the art form. His ideas around the lack of empathy in modern society, the importance of involving various communities, and visceral reactions to culture ring big bells with me and the things I believe in terms of the power of art and music.

Andrea Silvestrelli as the Commendatore
and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

One of the most powerful of all opera experiences for me is Don Giovanni. The opera is, as many of my regular readers may note, something of a favorite; it is also, to return to my first question, one of the more misunderstood works in the operatic repertoire. Some productions I’ve seen I have outright despised; others I found entertaining (like Komische Oper’s zany, Herbert Fritsch-directed production), while yet others made me re-think the opera entirely, illuminating its female characters and challenging perceptions of its main character. So much of what I think powers Mozart’s great opera is, in fact, the attitudes we, as audiences, bring into the auditorium; like any great work of art, our own experiences (and social conditioning) color what we experience, but when it comes to Giovanni especially, these attitudes show themselves in some very revealing ways, expressed mainly as our reactions to Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, and of course, to the Don himself.

Lately Don Giovanni has been frequently produced, what with the remount of Robert Carsen’s celebrated 2011 production on La Scala with baritone Thomas Hampson (one of the noted interpreters of the role) and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni (whose performance as Leporello I so enjoyed in Salzburg last summer); Opera in Holland Park and Opera Lausanne also celebrated their respective openings over the weekend, Gran Teatre Liceu (Barcelona) has a production opening later this month, and Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has a production next month. Don Giovanni is on now through June 30th at San Francisco Opera as part of their Summer of Love program.What is it about this work that so continues to entrance and excite artists and audiences alike? Why does the story of an unrepentant Lothario and the various women he loves and men he angers (and murders) — all within the space of one day — continue to have a grip on popular imagination? How does the work (and its telling) change through time, and why?

When I heard director Jacopo Spirei was helming a remount of a 2011 San Francisco Opera production originally directed by fellow Italian Gabriele Lavia, I was immediately intrigued. Spirei has an impressive resume of directing work, mainly focused in Europe and the UK; he got his start working with Graham Vick, and I’ve been following his career closely the last little while. Having already directed the opera two times prior to this (including at Salzburg’s renowned Landestheater), Spirei comes by his theatrical approach honestly. He spent considerable time in his twenties in England, seeing a variety of dramatic and operatic works at the English National Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the National Theatre. Eventually he went on to work with Vick at the celebrated Glyndebourne Festival. Spirei has since directed works at the Wexford Festival in Ireland, the Royal Danish Opera, Houston Grand Opera, the Theater an der Wien (Vienna), and Teatro Comunale di Bologna, among many others. Later this year he’ll be directing the opera Falstaff (based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor as well as scenes from Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) at the famous Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy.

Director Jacopo Spirei. Photo: Mary Marshania

In making his debut with the San Francisco Opera, Spirei had to take the work of another director, in a production from six years ago, and make it his own. In addition to wondering what that must’ve been like, I was also curious to learn his thoughts about various characters (especially the female ones) in the opera, and what it’s been like to work with artists who come with lots of prior experience in the role. Our conversation was very wide-ranging and, at times, quite intense, if equally friendly, and very lively. Spirei definitely has his opinions, but he has what I’d call the iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach; he doesn’t hit you over the head with ideas or proclaim decrees, but rather, contextualizes artistic and musical history, with some fun contemporary corollaries, to make truly interesting suggestions. You don’t have to agree with what he says, of course, but it’s worth ruminating on, at the very least. As I wrote in a past feature, sometimes it’s nice to be presented with new ideas on something you thought you knew very well, even if, initially, it’s a bit uncomfortable.

Owing to the wide nature of our conversation, I’ve divided our chat into two sections; expect Part 2 soon. We discuss the role of so-called “tradition” in opera, bringing the art form out of the theater, and what he meant when he recently told Newsweek that “In Italy, (opera) is all about putting on a pretty picture.” For now, here’s Spirei on Don Giovanni. 

What’s it like as a director to come to a production that already exists, and to try to put your own stamp on it?I’ve never done anything like this, but it’s been fascinating, to get, somehow, the limited set of ingredients and just create a new dish, because it’s a little bit of, when you have boundaries you are forced to be a lot more creative. Sometimes the boundaries are budget, artists, all kinds of different aspects, which is incredibly fascinating and exciting. This was the real challenge, to reinvent an element already there, although the starting point (of the original) is something that intrigued me a lot.

What was the element?

The fact the mirrors were central in the original production. I find it really attractive in a way, how Giovanni is a mirror to the other characters, showing us their real sides, taking everything from them. Somehow we’ve stripped everything away, so it’s just the element and dynamic in which the characters interact with each other and Giovanni.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni. Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You’re working with people who have a lot of experience with this work, and this character.

It’s great; it’s luxury. People come with their own luggage of experience of contributions. We’ve been working in an incredibly organic way — with (conductor) Marc (Minkowski), with Ildebrando (D’Arcangelo, who sings the lead) it’s been a great time of sharing and experiencing new material and finding new angles.

What I enjoy about working with Ildebrando is that he’s an artist who comes with a lot of experience, and a lot of expertise and knowledge, but he’s completely willing to try out new things and put himself in your hands, to experiment. It’s been really exciting to have worked someone who has been so fun. We didn’t have to do all the preliminary work; we both know the material really well, so basically a glance of the eye is enough for both of us to understand which way we’re going. It’s something I’ve never experienced in my life; with a look, he understands what you’re thinking and you can communicate with him in the same way, and then steer his performance into different directions. I’ve enjoyed that immensely.

Marc is the same. I love his approach to the tempi; it’s very refreshing, (in that) it’s very new, very contemporary, especially coming from period music. He’s an expert in that, of course — Baroque and ancient music — but he brings that freshness that conductors who come from that repertoire have. This is really exciting.

In many ways Don Giovanni feels like it belongs in the 21st century; it has so much to say about humans and relationships.

Absolutely. I’ve done Giovanni three times, in three completely different settings, time-wise, period-wise, visually as well. It’s extraordinary how much Giovanni has to give. You never get to the bottom of it. One could work on this opera forever and never get tired, though you might become obsessed, and be haunted by it! It’s a phenomenal piece to study, and like every Mozart piece, it never ceases to make us understand ourselves and the times in which we live. Giovanni is the man who is not willing to pay a price for his actions, who is completely free and without boundaries, with no morals, who pushes forward and never looks back.

Erwin Schrott as Leporello and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

What you’re saying makes me wonder, is he a symbol more than an actual man?

Yes of course, absolutely.

I’ve spoken with others who insist he is, and has to be, the latter.

Not at all! The thing is, that, if anything he is an example. What he is, is not Casanova, who is an historical figure; he’s a legend, a legendary character, and in a way, he has gone through five centuries of theater and has transformed himself every time because every century has looked at this character through their own lenses. The 18th century viewed him as a man who gets punished because he doesn’t take responsibility for his actions and follows instincts; it’s not a positive example.

The 19th century adored the element of him being against everything — but “Viva la libertà” is not a hail to freedom, it’s a hail to liberty, to do whatever you want. That’s not an altogether positive value, it’s the freedom to do whatever you like, however it pleases you, no matter what consequences it has on other people, which is the boundary of freedom. As you say, my liberty finishes when yours begins; Giovanni has none of (the awareness of consequences), so of course we’re fascinated and attracted, like we’re attracted to an abyss, or a tornado.

Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, with Erin Wall as Donna Anna (on screens).
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opero

I feel like the women really define him in many ways in this opera; they’re all incredibly important.

In the story, that day in the life of Giovanni, he doesn’t even seduce anybody! The only woman who’s in love with him is one who was abandoned from another place and is chasing him. We know he has a lot of women only by the words of Leporello about the catalogue, which is a list he makes as he says, but… is it a collection? Are those numbers real? The great thing about Giovanni is deceit; he’s constantly deceiving us as much as he’s deceiving everyone else. With Anna of course, there are lots of different approaches to that (situation), but it starts with the rape…

… if you want to call it that; some directors think it’s questionable if that’s what it actually is; I’ve come to think it is, too.

It is questionable, but once you go through the music and what she says, and the dramatic tension of the music, the trauma is there. Had she not shouted, her father would have not turned up — her father (the Commendatore) would be alive; if she shut up and didn’t do anything and let Giovanni go ahead and do whatever he was doing, her father would still be alive. She does carry that guilt, no matter how conscientious or not-conscientious she is. That’s one element. Another is that Zerlina is seduced by the money; she says “yes!” the minute he tells her, “I have a villa and will marry you.”

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni and Sarah Shefer as Zerlina.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You can’t forget positions in this opera; he is called “Don” for a reason, after all.

Absolutely.

I get frustrated with stagings that forget that part, and ones in which the women are victimized.

What’s fascinating is the characters also change. Elvira is a victim of Leporello and the catalogue aria, and we laugh at her until she tells us, “My God, he has betrayed me with so many women” and all of a sudden, we are with her in that pain. It’s the same moment when we find out our partners had betrayed and cheated on us. It’s so incredibly raw and so close to ourselves. One cannot simplify it into victims and non-victims; each one is a character representing an element of our personality.

… while also being a real human being: complex and nuanced. 

Absolutely.

___

Here’s Part Two of our chat, in which we discuss the role of theater in a broader sense, the debate on tradition in opera presentation, and opera fashion (To dress up or not to dress up?). Enjoy!

Art, Science, Wonder

At The Morgan Library & Museum (photo mine)

Amidst the challenges of last fall, the eagerness and inspiration with which I approached my cultural reportage faded away. It bothers me that I let something go that meant (means) so much to me, and I’m hoping to amend that in a number of ways as 2014 unfolds.

The best place I can think of starting is by tidying up a loose, fraying thread I left dangling off the edge of my quilt of chaos last autumn. Between school assignments, stressful living conditions, and some deeply unpleasant personal chaos, I never got to reviewing the wondrous da Vinci show that happened at the Morgan Museum and Library. I covered a fantastic surrealism show of theirs in 2013, and indeed, the Morgan is one of my favorite spots in New York City, what with its awe-inspiring collection of historical documents, breathtaking art, and gorgeous old-meets-new design; the clean steel lines of its atrium blend seamlessly with the warm wooden tones and carved stone of older structures. The da Vinci exhibit captured this old-meets-new ethos. Art and science integrated in a unique, inspiring way, one that, on reflection has me thinking about the marriage between chaos and order, style and content, dreams and reality.

Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin” (which ran from late October 2013 to early February of this year) was a beautiful, fascinating portrait of 15th-16th century curiosity that directed itself at the world, ourselves, and our place and position straddling the mysteries of the two; it forced reflection on relationships, both with the Morgan’s other, permanent works, and the way museum visitors perceive and experience art, history, and the notable intersection of the two.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Figure Studies, 1505
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)

“Figure Studies” (1505), a work done in pen and brown ink with traces of black chalk on paper, is a seamless blend of da Vinci’s artistry and passion for science featuring a large male nude who looks stripped of skin, his muscles exposed, his gluteus maximus a busy contusion of fine, light, grid-like ink strokes. The other figures in the work get gradually smaller, right to left, perhaps in a movement reflecting da Vinci’s idiosyncratic mirrored writing style. There are various scenes of motion — twisting and turning, from various angles — and sketches of a man on horseback, a horse rearing, and a set of male lips, sensuously curled open (and possibly exhaling a plume of smoke), at the top of the page. All the elements feel disparate and random, but the combination of bodies, gestures, and motion lend a certain joy to the detailed scientific doodles.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the drawings, it is impossible not to contemplate the materials used to create these works –ink, chalk, paper, metal, water — and their place in da Vinci’s world. Where did the chalk come from? The ink? How were they transported? What of the life of the person who sold such wares? It brings to mind a host of socio-historical questions in relation to the artist’s connection with the wider world, and the implications of pursuing art with a much wider world of trade, commerce, and economy at play. Such connections can so easily be forgotten or taken for granted.

It was impossible to take anything for granted that day, especially in a setting as special as the Morgan. Ornately decorated religious books, royal letters, old manuscripts, entreaties around the question of arranged marriages –many precious items within the Morgan’s permanent collection are contemporary to the works of da Vinci, and tell of a culture looking outside itself –to matters of law, of politics, of religion, of power and money –while da Vinci’s works are focused on humanity and the natural world, our relationship to it, and its connection to (and with) us. The artist’s firm fascination was with the mechanics of life, imagining the possibilities therein; such fascination is certainly tied to the exploratory spirit, a spirit which, in Da Vinci’s time, was tied to notions of human expansion and progress. The two were interchangeable at the time, and perhaps manifest most completely (and tragically) in the “discovery” of the Americas — European industrial and socio-political/cultural expansion at the expense of many native populations and cultures. I couldn’t help but look a bit askance at the “Hercules” depiction, knowing that, concurrent to its creation, a whole other set of mythologies and mythological systems were being plundered and destroyed.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519), Head of a Young Woman, 
(Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’), 1480s 
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)

Still, thinking back on that rainy late-fall day, I am struck by da Vinci’s unfailing curiosity at the wider world. The artist was clearly testing the limits of his materials, using ink, then chalk (specifically finger-staining red chalk), to seek a new vision of his evolving world, a violent, swirling one shaped by politics, religion, corruption and competition. He wasn’t interested in doing portraits of the power-brokers of his day, but in finding and exploring tender humanity. Sometimes that took the shape of scientific inquiry, of motion and mechanics, and sometimes it took the form of soft, smooth flesh. He wielded his real-world materials deftly in an attempt to get at an other-worldly, if deeply earthy, complex-plain truth that lay behind the eyes of his subjects, be they human or animal, or past the slippery surface of mechanics and wings and internal organs.

One can still find such integrated elegance in our age –in the work of Ettore Sottsass, Sergio Pininfarina, the architecture of Pei or Tadao Ando or Oscar Niemeyer, the scientific sensuousness of Sugimoto’s photography, or the jaw-droppingly beautiful art of Isabelle Dalle, and Denis Dubois, and Tumblr’s “Bedelgeuse.” Science and art can (and should) exist together; it seems strange we don’t connect them, when so many artists and scientists have.  Sometimes they are even one in the same. And while the integration can’t change history, it can change minds — and hearts. Da Vinci’s work goes far in mending wounds, offering us not a black or white or even a grey road, but one colored in tones we could see, if only we opened ourselves to it, looked at the mechanics, and then looked past them; it’s a better path that leaves the crumbs along the path to our better natures, to what, perhaps, might be our essential nature: to be contemplative, and calm, but always hungry — not to conquer or rule, not to subjugate or exploit, but to know.  Da Vinci’s art, and his science, his perfect integration of the two, reminds us of the hunger for knowing, for learning, for experience, for beauty; we are hungry for transcendence, and hungry for life. Let us eat, and let us always want to ask for more.

Lasting

Today’s not only the last day of 2012, it’s the last day the Lenox Lounge is open.

This past year has been filled with many good moments, but spending time in the noisy, busy, buzzy environs  of the historic Harlem jazz club rates at the top. For all my love of New York City and its vibrant energy, there was something uniquely, defiantly old-school, bad-ass NYC about the LL. It had a rich sense of history, pungent through every aspect of its being: from walls to drinks to the look of the patrons and musicians alike, something winked, with long lashes, as lacquered nails held stubby cigarette, “history, baby…

The Lenox Lounge will be history tonight.

A certain sadness over lost places presented itself during a recent Toronto visit over the December holidays. All my old youthful haunts -the Uptown Theatre on Yonge Street, Flo’s Diner in Yorkville, Sam The Record Man near the Eaton Centre -are gone, replaced with shiny-glass/hard-concrete boxes. They’re monolithic symbols of an infuriating brand of unquestioned cultural homogeny, the pervasiveness of which I find totally depressing. No one remembers -and if they do, they shrug; who cares?

Now, nostalgia is a word – a concept -I don’t always like, but it does have its uses. And, it must be said, I do mourn the loss of historic markers signifying another time and era. It worries me to think I’ve turned into one of those white-templed, sharply-cheek-boned women tut-tutting the kids of today who “don’t know any better!” But perhaps there’s nothing wrong with becoming that grand old dame, either. “I remember when!” might be a good mantra; there’s something good about being a (hopefully somewhat glam) living, breathing collection of memories of a lost era. I tell younger friends about loopy, wild times enjoyed in the Toronto and New York of old, and I get dumb stares. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fun. We felt we were connected to something larger than us -the people who’d gone before, generations who’d worked on those old buildings, warm bodies and flustered souls who’d sweat in those old theaters and clubs and stores, curious types who passed through, looking for fireworks and noise and fury, leaving with new colors, shapes, ways of being and seeing in the world. There was something older, grander, larger around us, a history that wasn’t choking but enlivening, not constricting but yawning wide in a creaky old embrace. Everything was crooked, dirty, cock-eyed, chipped and scruffy; nothing looked the same, because nothing and no one was. Way Back When wasn’t shiny, but it could hardly be called dull.

I remember when!” It’s a mantra that commands a weird respect, even as it inspires reminiscence tinged with whimsy, sadness, and regret. You feel your age when you say it. Bones creak. Breath tightens. Nose hairs appear. Another year passing means more buildings knocked over, more places like the Lenox Lounge vanishing. It’s good to cherish the past but it’s troubling when you’re stuck in it. Problems arise when “I remember when!” comes “To hell with tomorrow!” So maybe it’s best whispered, as jazz joints and record stores and grand old cinemas vanish, to remember those places with a smile and to wait, with baited breath, for what 2013 might bring. I remember that, but I’m curious about this.

Just please, keep the glass boxes. Bland has no place in the future I envision.

(Photos taken from my Flickr stream)

Tea Time

As I poured hot water over my Bewleys tea bag this morning, I thought about the art of tea-making, and how much it’s changed, or at least been simplified and degraded by the busy nature of modern life. I enjoyed a thorough education in the fine art of tea and its enjoyment yesterday afternoon at the lovely In Pursuit of Tea, on Crosby Street in Manhattan.

Housed in an inconspicuous part of Soho, IPOT specializes in fine teas and hosts regular tastings. My host, co-founder Sebastian Beckwith, graciously made the assembled a variety of teas –white, oolong, green, black, and pu-erh -in the classical style: using delicate pieces of fine china to brew, and providing dainty Oriental tasting cups for attendants. Sebastian provided a wonderful background to each tea, too, in a casual, conversational way, sharing stories about his recent travels through China and about the vanishing arts that contribute to the manufacturing of certain types of tea.

Like my last tea-tasting with Stratford, Ontario’s very own tea sommelier Karen Hartwick at Toronto’s Hart House, the experience of tasting various teas, and of sharing my observations with the assembled, transported me into an older, more deeply sensual world, one where the eyes, ears, tongue and heart work in perfect harmony. Having Led Zeppelin play in the store’s intimate environment added a sexily jagged rock and roll vibe, and provided the perfect bridge between old world and new.

A big part of the old world, Sebastian explained, is the way various teas are handled. Women who know how to treat and process certain green teas – with their own hands – are slowly dying, and they aren’t passing on their knowledge to a younger generation, not because they don’t want to, but because the younger generation isn’t interested in learning. The same processing could be done via machine, but it just isn’t the same, in either taste or experience. It would be, I observed, akin to kneading bread by hand or using the quick-rise, no-knead version. Sure, good, but… not the same. It’s a question of personal taste.
The same holds true for writing. I recently attended an event at the wonderful Eyebeam New York;. the happening was done with Moleskine, the good people behind the beloved, legendary journals, notebooks, and other fine writing accessories. In my next blog spot, I’ll be going into more detail about the nostalgia for older, more tangible forms of art. You see it reflected in the craze for vinyl records, for gardening, for home cooking. People want to experience life sensually, while holding on to (and developing) their digital identities. In fact, they’re interested in linking the two. There’s a fascinating kind of circular experience happening in popular culture.
That became achingly apparent yesterday as I inhaled the earthy, flowery aromas of infused tea leaves, listened to Robert Plant “ramble on”, chatted and laughed with other tasters, and let the buttery (or grassy, or vanilla) flavors roll around my palate. Tasting life never seemed more rich. Who knew it could fit into such a tiny cup?

It’s My Life. Don’t You Forget.

Finding old photos deemed long-lost is both dizzyingly joyful and weirdly alarming. I found myself experiencing this tailspin recently as I inadvertently came upon photos from more than a decade ago; visions of past lives, selves, dreams, ambitions and moments came flooding back. It made me feel old and young, all at once.

I have little use for nostalgia; I’m not the sort of person to long for a time to return, or to wallow in the tail-chasing uselessness of regret. But I wonder about the effect the internet has on our collective memories. People are quick to throw up albums of their latest outing/party/dinner/etc, without considering that they just might be giving a part of themselves away forever. And while they’re busy photoshopping and uploading and updating and IMing their adventures, there’s a whole world around them that keeps going. I don’t want to live my life online; I want to live it … living.

After the funny, familiar, forgotten feelings passed, I wondered about scanning a few photos to share. Would I? Should I? Is it anyone’s business? How much does sharing my past propel me into the future? or trap me in the past? Does the relentless documentation of the mundane boil down to simple narcissism? the primal urge to connect? a bit of both? Have Warhol’s fifteen minutes been shrunk to mere pixels and megabytes, mp3s and mp4s? I grapple with these questions daily, judiciously weighing what to share, what not to share, how best to do it, and when to walk away entirely, and, you know, live my life somewhere other than online, or in the media at all. I can’t help but wonder how my artwork’s being influenced by all this reflection, however, or its symbiotic relationship with a larger popular culture where exposure and revelation seem to overshadow not just nuance, but the blood-and-guts beauty of day-to-day living.

As such, I’ve being paying a heap of attention to the news around Patti Smith’s memoir of life with Robert Mapplethorpe. ‘Just Kids’ won the U.S. National Book Award for non-fiction in November. Patti was recently interviewed by Stephen Colbert, who, responding to his humorous query about her punk, anti-establishment ethos, said, softly but firmly, “I like my award.” As if there was any question she might throw it back. The award is a testament to Smith’s mastery with words. The book is a hypnotizing blend of moving personal experience and a recollections on life in late 60s/early 70s as a struggling young artist. Famous figures like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Sam Wagstaff, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed (among many others) float in and out, but what kept my interest flowing was Patti’s poetic, flowing prose shot through with equal parts youthful zeal and lived-in wisdom. There’s an old-soul quality to her work that in no way lessens her roaring passion or stirring memories of her personal and artistic development on the mean streets of the Big Apple.

Owing to this unique combination of flavours, ‘Just Kids’ has become one of my very-favorite books, ever. I devoured whole chapters across many late evenings when I began reading it, connecting deeply with certain aspects: involvement with artists; finding one’s own artistic voice; sacrificing for vision; growing confidence; growing old; shifting priorities; retaining authenticity. As I noted the end drawing ever nearer, I wound up slowing my voracious, passionate pace, instincts automatically kicking in to postpone the inevitable final page. Time -with anyone, with any place, with any memory, with any project -is always finite. Patti herself acknowledges this as she writes of the last time she met, and spoke with, her longtime … what? Friend? Lover? Mentor? Soulmate? All of the above. ‘Just Kids’ describes a life well-lived indeed, but it also bravely crosses into some personal, painful hinterlands.

That Patti was so baldly, boldly able to share a very, deeply personal part of her life with the public, without being saccharine, sentimental, or sensationalist is awe-inspiring. And yet, it feels natural. Patti honored the beauty of life she’s experienced, in all its gut-wrenching, thrilling, horrifying, glorifying majesty, by writing this book. She also honored Robert’s request. Nothing about ‘Just Kids’ feels forced, cheap, or exploitive. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s deeply moving and desperately personal. I’m a deeply private person myself (despite all my online activities might imply) and I am really not sure I’d ever be able to write something akin to ‘Just Kids’, nor am I sure I’d want to. I don’t be able to make the kind of promise Patti made with Robert before he died about writing a memoir of their lives, partially because I don’t think I could ever do those kinds of relationships justice in written form, and, frankly, I’m not sure certain things are anyone’s business.

I do, however, have photos and old journals; I have memories that flicker in and out, and boxes (and boxes!) of poetry, photographs, drawings, and paintings. This – -my life – – is the foundation of my art, and the art of many, past and present, whom I admire. Translating it all into something I feel comfortable sharing, without it seeming narcissistic, saccharine, or relentlessly navel-gazing, is a challenging, if inevitable, opportunity to open a door into a new world. It’s like trying to get into the best, most dreamy spot in the world, but there’s a guard dog outside, and you only know it’s there by its breath; it might bite you, it might let you pet it, but you have to get past it, blood, treats, cooing, and all.

Ultimately, the best art requires a certain degree of nakedness. And nakedness requires bravery. Patti was brave enough to be naked -in ‘Just Kids’ unquestionably, but also through her thirty-plus years of poetry, art and music. I’m gradually learning to go naked too. Damn it’s cold. But I’m getting used to it… maybe.

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