Tag: live

Tomasz Konieczny: Acting Before Singing Was Hard!

Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Hearing Tomasz Konieczny speak, you can’t help but think “well of course he’s a singer.” But he didn’t start out as one.

In a recent chat I had with the Polish bass baritone, who’s currently in Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company’s season-opening production of Strauss’ romantic comedy Arabella (running October 5th to 28th), Konieczny admitted that being an actor first was a hindrance, not a help. As you’ll hear, re-learning everything anew was not an easy task. While there is a greater focus on acting in opera these days (especially since the advent of the Met’s Live In HD series, where gesture is writ large on cinema screens around the world), sometimes knowing the acting part first makes things harder, not easier.

I first heard Konieczny as Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in a compelling 2014 Salzburg Festival production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. (I liked the production on DVD so much I had to go see it live for myself at its revival in Salzburg in 2016, though Canadian bass Alain Coulombe sang the role). What strikes me about Konieczny is how he modulates authority; his Commendatore, for instance, was commanding (as the name may imply), but it was also restrained, which is something not always conveyed when performing the role of a ghostly, avenging father. His performance oozed a quiet kind of power that was hypnotizing, creepy, and very memorable. Konieczny performed the role again this past spring, in a production by the famed director Robert Carsen, at Teatro alla Scala Milan, opposite Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello and Thomas Hampson’s Don.

Claire de Sévigné as the Fiakermilli, Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka, John Fanning as Count Waldner and Gundula Hintz as Adelaide in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Along with discussing the challenges that come with moving between various roles (Konieczny has a long and impressive resume that includes a lot of Wagner roles), he and I also discuss voice types, a debated area in the singer world; while some are comfortable with the ‘bass baritone’ label, some are very much not. Konieczny provide a helpful template for how to think about these voice types. We also talk about the romantic Mandryka, in Arabella, a role he’s well familiar with (having performed it a numerous occasions with the Vienna State Opera), and the influence (or not) of aristocracy and money on his character in Strauss’ 1933 comic opera.


Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions

Is this the year of great singers making their Canadian debuts? Perhaps.

Soprano Anna Netrebko and husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, appeared in Toronto this past April (along with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky), as part of a concert co-presented by the Canadian Opera Company and Show One Productions. This past Thursday, (8 June) soprano Hibla Gerzmava made her debut in the city, joined by conductor Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, who has led the ensemble since formation it in 1979.

Gerzmava, who hails from Abkhazia (located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea), is a singer of some acclaim. I’ve been following Gerzmava’s work for a number of years, particularly her annual gala concerts (called “Hibla Gerzmava Invites”) that feature a who’s-who of great classical-world talent. She’s a singer with a laser-pointed tone and a warm, textured sound. I had the chance to see her live last fall in Don Giovanni (not shocking to those of aware of my fascination with that work) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with famous baritone Simon Keenlyside in the lead; Gerzmava’s Donna Anna was pleading, angst-filled, guilt-wracked. Her performance of “Non Mi Dir” was lovely, with Gerzmava shaping her rolled consonants and luxurious vowels into a rapturous embrace.

Paul Appleby as Don Ottavio, Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna, and Simon Keenlyside in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Aside from that memorable voice, what makes Gerzmava interesting to me is that the same year she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, in 1994, she became the first singer — and the sole woman ever — to earn the prestigious Grand Prize in the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. Since then, she’s appeared on some very notable opera stages, including the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna), the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich), Bavarian State Opera, Opéra National de Paris,  the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Met of course, and the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, among many others. This past spring she sang the title role in Donizetti’s dramatic opera Anna Bolena (part of his Tudor trilogy) at Teatro Alla Scala Milan (opposite venerable Italian bass Carlo Columbara as Enrico / Henry), one of the most challenging of roles within the repertoire, both musically and dramatically.

(via Melodiya)

Gerzmava’s recent albums,  Hibla Gerzmava, Soprano (Melodiya), released in 2014) and Opera. Jazz. Blues. (Melodiya), from 2016, explore an array of sounds, with the latter focusing on jazzy forays into traditionally classical repertoire (with arrangements by Daniel Kramer), and the former an impressive live recording of a concert she gave in Moscow with Spivakov and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia in 2013. She gives thrilling readings of many opera classics on this album, every piece full of laser clear tone and dramatic verve; it’s a highly listenable album, and I think it works really well as an introduction to opera overall, offering a nice selection of well-known favorites, wonderful interpretations (including a lively rendering, together with baritone Arsen Sogomonian, of the duet between the main female character and the charlatan-doctor character in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore, or The Elixir of Love, another huge favorite of mine), and the sparky dynamism of live performance. Consider that a recommendation for those of you who are a bit nervous about sticking your toe into the opera ocean; trust me, this is a nice bubbly jacuzzi best enjoyed with a good cold glass of rose.

Currently on tour with the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra through North America, Gerzmava made her Canadian debut Thursday night at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall (the regular home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), offering a highly eclectic program featuring works by mainly French and Italian composers. After a first half that featured Spivakov leading the Ensemble in an a wide array of works (including Mozart, Shostakovich, Bruch), as well as a sparky performance by young cellist Danielle Akta, Gerzmava appeared, splendid in a grand, floor-sweeping red/blue/gold dress, with long hair neatly pinned up, and launched straight into one of the best-known arias within the operatic repertoire (also featured on her live album), “Casta Diva”, from Bellini’s Norma. It could well be suspected that Gerzmava was facing a few challenges (she appeared to be sucking on some kind of lozenge or candy at several points), what with some uneven moments vocally, and a gradually diminishing volume throughout the concert that left her with a small but very sweet tone for the evening’s encores, the famous “O Mio Babbino Caro” (from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi) and Strauss’ ethereal “Morgen“, also featured on her live album. Whatever vocal color she may have been lacking, Gerzmava made up for with brilliant flashes of the muscular tone for which she’s rightly celebrated, particularly in the middle portion of the program. Her renderings of the showpiece stretto aria from Verdi’s I Masnadieri (The Robbers) and “Ecco… Io son l’umile ancella” (“I am the humble servant) from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur were standouts for their tonal clarity, light if well-considered vibrato, and the fierce dramatic heft of their delivery.

Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions.

Gerzmava showed herself so deeply cocooned within the music she was performing at points as to be acting out the parts to and with various orchestra members, who gamely played to her, along with conductor Spivakov; it would have all come off unbearably corny but for the fact that Gerzmava, and her fellow musicians, were so very clearly committed to the music, and to the moments of both intimacy and grandeur within the music. Some pieces were more like duets, which made Gerzmava’s and the Virtuosi’s connection with the music that much more touching. Here’s to many more appearances by Gerzmava in Canada in the future, and fingers crossed for not only some Russian repertoire in that program, but some Mozart, too.

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…


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.

Too Much Is Not Enough

(Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
Is too much of a good thing really so bad?
In Salzburg last August, I was spoiled in seeing operas and concerts every day and night of my visit; I generally avoid this, as it not only hurts the brain, but robs the soul of some meaningful (and usually much-needed, in my case) contemplation, as well as necessary human connection and company. I like to sit between things and drink, write, and live: go to dinner, go to galleries, take long walks — but mostly, think, feel, absorb. Good music, well sung and presented, offers me big meal needing a slow digestion, which is best done in silence and sunshine, over wine or cocktails, with friends in lively talks, on walks through the woods with birdsong and breezes.

Alas, I didn’t get much time for any of that on a recent trip to New York City, where I saw four operas over a three-day visit, with various work-related things to complete two of the three day times. New York in winter is challenging enough; being exposed to so music, and so many ideas, presented a wholly unique level of emotional and intellectual heartburn. Then again, it was its own kind of binge, and I can’t say I’m sorry for indulging. All the operas I saw (Fidelio, Idomeneo, Romeo et Juliette, and La Traviata) left strong impressions in different ways, but what linked them all was the tremendously high quality of singing, and, in some cases, the intriguing smart approach to directing.
The Met’s revival of Fidelio, for instance (which closes tomorrow, Saturday, April 8th), was so good that I still recall (and am stopped in my tracks by) various images it presented. Beethoven’s sole opera revolves around a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband Florestan, who is being held prisoner by a ruthless state governor, Don Pizarro.  Many people not familiar with opera will be familiar with the famous “Leonore” overture, the third in a series of pieces Beethoven wrote in his frenzy to perfect the work. I have clear memories of seeing this opera at the Canadian Opera Company decades ago with my mother, and her writing an angry letter to the company after the production did not include this overture; to her, it was sacrilege, but of course, it was difficult to convey, in a diplomatic matter, that the habit of playing it as part of an opera production (usually just before the finale) had fallen out of fashion, for logistical as well as dramatic reasons. I still think of her, and in fact, did again this trip. Jurgen Flimm’s production, however, is so smart, and the performances so very engaging (particularly sopranos Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Adrienne Pieczonka, who I am very much looking forward to seeing in the Canadian Opera Company’s Tosca), that I honestly didn’t miss that bit of nostalgia at all. Sorry, mom. 

Fidelio bows (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
Flimm, who is Director of the Staatsoper Berlin Unter den Linden since 2010 (and whose work you’ll be reading more about in a post later this spring) has placed the action of the work —traditionally set in late 18th-century Seville after the French Revolution — in immediately-post-WW2 Europe. In doing this, he uses imagery that some (especially those of us familiar with Holocaust photo documents) may find familiar; piles of shoes, for instance, along with other personal belongings, are piled into corners in the underground dungeon where Florestan is being held, the only signs of the vanished, the ranks of which Don Pizarro firmly plans his prisoner to join. Director Flimm gives a poignant commentary on the nature of power here, and how its abuse creates political discord which is expressed as a deep social malaise. Thus, relationships are given a distinct emphasis: those between employer and employee, prisoner and guard, father and daughter, husband and wife — and, more broadly, men and women. Everything is poisoned, and thus, everyone. 

Nowhere was this illustrated more clearly than in the way Flimm staged the interactions between Leonore (Adrienne Pieczonka), the prison warden Rocco (Falk Struckmann), Marzellina (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller) and Jaquino (David Portillo), an assistant to Rocco at the prison where Leonore’s husband Florestan (Klaus Florian Vogt) is being held illegally by Don Pizarro (Greer Grimsley). The stark contrast between the Marzellina/Jaquino and Leonore/Florestan relationships was highlighted at the ending of the opera, which, for all its raucous joy, had a satisfyingly bitter edge, with Flimm showing the corrupt Pizarro being led to the gallows by celebrating freed prisoners, and Marzellina’s look of horror as she realizes the “boy” she’d been infatuated with was really a woman; Jaquino is intent on harassing (or rather, bullying, in the manner of his old boss) the poor girl into submission, as she drops blood-red roses across the celebratory scene. Leonore and Florestan are hoisted in joy by the happy onlookers as Robert Israel’s stark set, with its unmistakeable gallows, looms over the proceedings, a grim reminder that the happiness on display is not only fleeting, but mixed with violence, the sort that its purer form (in the form of Leonore) sought to eradicate. It is a caustic ending that offers a fantastically smart and very timely non-conclusion to what many consider to be one of the most difficult works in the operatic repertoire.

Matthew Polenzani as Idomeneo / Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera (via)
Less about production and far, far more about the singing in and of itself providing the drama, Mozart’s 1781 opera Idomeneo, featured a stellar cast that included soprano Elza van den Heever (whose work I so enjoyed last fall, when she performed the lead in Norma with the Canadian Opera Company) and tenor Matthew Polenzani, who is the recipient of a 2017 Opera News Award (which are being handed out in NYC this coming Sunday, April 9th). More than once during that Friday evening performance I found myself shutting eyes and throwing head back in sheer wonder at Polenzani’s marvelously emotive voice, his “Fuor del mar” in the second act a particularly heartfelt interpretation. (Sidenote: I am greatly looking forward to the revival of his Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore next season; expect a post about that.) Lindemann Young Artist Development Program graduate Yin Fang, who sang the role of Ilia, has a gorgeous, crystalline soprano, as well as a gracious stage presence that made her scenes with mezzo soprano Alice Coote (in a pants role, as Idamante, son of the title character) a joy to listen to. The 35 year-old production, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was tasteful if homogenous — which was useful, because it allowed a pure experience of Mozart’s music, in and of itself. Maestro James Levine conducted a lustrous Met Orchestra that allowed for the score’s youthful vivacity to shine through, something the singers took full and glorious advantage of. 

In the parterre.
 (Photo: mine, link /  Please do not reproduce without 
Equally compelling was American theatre director Bartlett Sher‘s Romeo et Juliette, French composer Charles Gounod’s tuneful 1867 interpretation of the Shakespearean tale of the star-crossed lovers. The house was, I think, nearly sold out for this special closing show, which featured star turns from soprano Pretty Yende and tenor Stephen Costello in the leads. Yende is a highly watchable performer, her lilting voice as responsive and graceful as the fluters of her gorgeous Catherine Zuber-designed costumes; she shared an exceptional chemistry with Costello, whose wholly romantic rendering of “Ah! Lêve-toi, soleil!” made more than a few of the ladies around me happily sigh. Making his mark in a small but pivotal role as Frère Laurent as English bass Matthew Rose (who I interviewed recently); his authoritative bass voice expressed a wonderfully nuanced range of emotions, and that, together with the way he cleverly used his physicality (Rose is very tall), suggested a touching paternal protectiveness of the young lovers. 
Last but not least on my NYC opera whirlwind trip was Verdi’s La Traviata, perhaps one of the best-known of all works, though this staging was easily one of the most modern I’ve attended. The story, about a popular, if secretly ill, courtesan who finds real love and ultimately gives it up when pressured, only to tragically die (come on, you knew that was coming), is one of the most popular works in opera, with a very famous drinking song that everyone (yes, even you) knows and has hummed to once or twice. Directed by German theater artist Willy Decker from a 2005 production at the Salzburg Festival, the set principally consisted of a massive curved wall, with an overall design aesthetic containing strong German expressionist influences. Violetta’s place as an isolated woman who craves (and survives on) male attention was confirmed and re-confirmed throughout the evening, as was director Decker’s belief that Traviata is (as he notes in the program notes) “a piece about death”; by the end I felt as if I’d been continually hit with a large frying pan labelled Big Artistic Ideas. If it all seemed dramatic and theatrical, I suppose it was meant to, wiping away any lingering memories of traditional productions involving big dresses and fans, and I was actually quite pleased the performers put their whole passion into this endeavour, offering vocal interpretations that precisely matched the strong directorial vision. Its leads —soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta, tenor Michael Fabiano as Alfredo, and baritone Thomas Hampson as Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s father) — delivered searing performances that were entirely modern and watchable, even, dare I say, cinematic, with Fabiano, especially, easily delivering, one of the most memorable (and applauded) interpretations of Alfredo I’ve ever seen; he wasn’t merely passionate about Violetta, but dangerously obsessive. The fact I found myself so impressed is, in retrospect, notable; this was one of my mother’s very favorite works, and I suspect I have seen it now many hundreds of times. I also suspect she would have, in her infinite Verdi wisdom, been as gaga over the performances as I was. 

The set of La Traviata (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
La Traviata continues at the Met to April 14th, with Carmen Giannattasio as Violetta,  Atalla Ayan as Alfredo, and, starting tomorrow night (Saturday, April 8th), Placido Domingo as Giorgio Germont. Go! Andiamo! You may not agree with all of Decker’s creative choices, but I guarantee you will come out with at least one strong image from this production seared into your brain (never a bad thing, ultimately), and with the brindisi — as vibrant a piece of music as ever — still ringing in your ears.  

Ah, Landerida!

On the train through Luxembourg. (Photo: mine; link; please do not reproduce without permission)

Traveling is a very special thing made all the more special when done in the service of a passion.

As I alluded to in my last post, I journeyed through parts of Germany, Belgium, and France this past January and February, on what I came to refer to as my Mid-winter European Opera Jaunt. It wasn’t a conscious plan, but, as more and more opportunities for attending interesting things came up (all within the highly doable, intimate geography of Western Europe), the more it seemed wrong to pass them by.

There were many memorable moments, and also a few missteps. The Gospel According To The Other Mary premiered in Los Angeles in 2011, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. A kind of oratorio-opera hybrid integrating various original texts from Louise Erdrich, Dorothy Day, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen, Rosario Castellanos, Primo Levi, Ruben Dario, and the bible, the work focuses on the mythology of the Magdalene and her feminist influences and underpinnings. The series of performances (three in total) was made special by the coming together of librettist Peter Sellars (the first director to take a residency with the orchestra for the 2015/2016 season) and composer John Adams (the orchestra’s first composer to take a residency with the BP). Sir Simon Rattle led a sparky Berlin Phil, with emphasis on the piece’s rhythmic qualities; the Maestro also worked to highlight the piece’s elegant lyricism, which was most clearly expressed through the countertenor passages, drawing stark distinctions between it and the score’s frequently jagged texture. I couldn’t help but feel, in listening and watching, that Sellars (whose directing work I greatly admire) desperately needed a dramaturge; the epic-aspiring Mary frequently felt unfocused and overlong, stuffed with too much exposition, too many ideas, too much sustained intensity that, as Adams’ rich (sometimes too-rich) score wore on, became exhausting to listen to. The last third, in particular, felt to me like a test of endurance, rather than the spiritual awakening I think Mary was meant to be.

Berlin Philharmonic bows. (Photo: mine; link; please do not reproduce without permission)

As a performance space, the Philharmonie is itself far more intimate than what I was expecting. The excellent Digital Concert Hall (which broadcasts the BP’s concerts live online and has an incredibly comprehensive archive of past live performances and interviews for subscribers) makes it look rather immense, but I confess to feeling delighted at my spatial expectations being totally dashed once I entered and sat down. The hall, designed by Hans Scharoun and opened in 1963 (after a series of setbacks), provides a lovely sense of relationship not only with the orchestra and performers, but with one another as concert-goers. Works that have been performed here for over five decades take on a special (dare I say intimate) meaning, thanks to the Philharmonie’s cozy architectural design.

Post Petrushka/L’Enfant. (Photo: mine; please
do not reproduce without permission)

Not strictly an opera but an entertaining, theatrical work nonetheless, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, together with Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges (a “Fantaisie lyrique”) were presented in a bright, vivacious production by Komische Oper. British company 1927 Productions brought the vivid visual poetry they’re known for to each work, creating a vibrant dance of animation and live action that exploded with color and movement, while highlighting the tragic, comic, and thoughtful points of the wildly different works.

Ravel’s L’Enfant, about a naughty schoolboy (its English translation is The Child and the Spells), was, by turns, comic, abstract, thoughtful, profound, and utterly delightful, with the entire cast giving bravura performances. 1927 are set to present the North American premiere of their celebrated version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Opera Philadelphia this September. I’ve never been to Philadelphia, but this is an awfully tempting reason to go. The trippy production, while delighting the eyes, offered a wise sonic reminder of the jaunty rhythmic underpinnings of each work; conductor Markus Poschner led a sprightly reading of both scores, one that beautifully complimented the gorgeous visuals, note for note, while maintaining a deft audio poetry. In all frankness, I’d dearly love to see this production in North America, sooner than later; it feels like a truly wonderful introduction for opera newbies, and a gorgeous reminder of the wonder of the art form and its myriad of theatrical possibilities for longtime fans.

Equally whimsical was Opera National de Lorraine’s colorful production of Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Wedding) by Dominico Cimarosa. Originally done at Opernhaus Zurich in 2014, the opera buffa (which premiered precisely 225 years to the night I attended, on February 7, 1792, in Vienna) is a soapy farce that bears comparison with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), though is based on the English play The Clandestine Marriage. Director Cordula Dauper underlined the trope-like nature of the characters, presenting a cartoonish vision that was neither historic nor contemporary, but cleverly played up some of the work’s relational underpinnings while adding hints of commedia della’arte and soap-opera farce within a dollhouse framework. Particularly notable were the scenes between the secretly-married Carolina (soprano Lilian Farhani) and the determined Count Robinson (bass Riccardo Novaro), who, though ostensibly caught in a battle of Pepe-le-Pew-style interest/disinterest, was presented as a kind of sexual (and I’d argue, emotional) awakening for each character; this added dimension made their scenes, with one another and with Carolina’s respective paramour Paulino (tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani) and father Geronimo (baritone Donato di Stefano) all the more rich and intriguing. Conductor Sascha Goetzel led the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy orchestra in a zesty reading of Cimarosa’s deceptively complex score, underlining the poetry amidst the jollity, and thoughtfully (if purposefully) leaning into its small, lovely corners.

Matrimonio bows. (Photo: mine; link; please do not reproduce without permission)

Last but certainly not least, Opera Royal de Wallonie’s beautiful presentation of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust was deeply memorable on both musical and theatrical levels. Director Ruggero Raimondi framed the work around the human costs of the First World War, contrasting, in the profoundly affecting Hungarian March scene, country people (singing of “Landerida” and the simple joys of life), military elites, and arguably, a dour authoritarianism hanging over the whole scene. Using a sparkly scrim spread across the stage for video projections, images of devastation (snaking lines of trucks and ragged marching troops; a disembodied hand, with fingers reaching up like broken roots; the face of a dead soldier peering, ghost-like, through layers of mud) offered an uncomfortable contrast to the triumphal sonic nature of the march (to say nothing of its overall historical associations), deflating the piece’s machismo but deftly avoiding any blatant didacticism. Rather than being heavy-handed, the contextual framework added an intriguing (and quite timely) depth to an abstract work, which is known largely through its in-concert presentations. Le damnation de Faust engaged both head and heart, exploring the effects of war, the role of spirituality, and the transformative nature of real love. It also featured some truly gorgeous singing from its talented leads: baritone Laurent Kubla (Brander), mezzo soprano Nino Surguladze (Marguerite), bass baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Mephistopheles), and tenor Paul Groves (Faust; interview is coming soon). If you love French opera, the Faust myth, or are just plain curious, Culturebox has a link of the full performance it broadcast live online on January 31st. Even without English subtitles, it’s worth watching, and re-watching; this is some of the most beautiful music ever written, to my ears. Sighs of bliss guaranteed.

Faust bows (Photo: mine; please do not reproduce without permission)

Next on the opera-going schedule: New York City, specifically four operas at The Met this weekend. I’ll also be presenting plenty of question/answer exchanges as well as audio interviews with various artists in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned, friends!

When We Were Young

photo via

Lately I’ve set myself the task of slowly cleaning out my house, bit by bit. In the process, I’ve run across a fair amount of stuff that’s reminded me of my younger days: an old sweater, a pair of earrings, high heels.

“I wore this to that show,” I’m reminded, “and I remember loving this look at that party.”

Alas, I can’t remember quite what I wore to see Stone Temple Pilots when they played Toronto’s historic Masonic Temple (then a concert venue) back in the early 1990s. It was winter, and awfully cold in the hall, at least until the concert started, when it got steamy; whatever I wore, it was layered, and one by one, those layers, like those of my youthful self-consciousness, were peeled off as the show progressed, until I was left in a tank top, shrieking, sweaty, and wild-eyed at an amazing, beautiful, pure rock-and-roll sound that stays with me to this day.

I’d seen other bands in small and big venus before, but the crowd for STP was different — saucier, louder, more diverse, with a whole lot more young women, one of whom, I distinctly remember, mixed high-waisted mom jeans (then deeply unfashionable) with a tight hornet-green tank top and wayfarer sunglasses. She knew every word of every song, and rocked out from her front-balcony position, trading points and gestures with Scott Weiland now and again, as the lead singer stalked around the space, spitting, crooning, gesticulating wildly; seducing us one moment and ready to punch us the next,  he was, unlike so many other figures I’d seen live or on TV, seemingly unconcerned with garnering good opinions. And he was, I suspect, for so many in the audience that night, me and mum-jeans girl included, the antihero we didn’t quite realize we wanted, but nonetheless found ourselves gravitating towards. We may’ve been outsiders beyond the walls of the Masonic Temple, but we were welcomed within it that night.

photo via

Stone Temple Pilots were just emerging as a loud rock outfit back then, with a few elements of the then-huge grunge sound, trying to get out from under the overbearing mound of Pearl Jam comparisons. They’d made a few videos but no one could quite get a handle on them, except of course, to compare them to others, and to try to strip them of any semblance of originality. Even at the time (never mind in retrospect), it seemed wildly unfair and frustratingly reductive. They were deeply of and yet simultaneously beyond their time. As Rob Harvilla noted, the band became, by the mid-90s, “the armadillo-trousered ’70s arena-rockers of their dreams, a T.Rex for the Jurassic Park era.”

As someone who grew up deep into pop as well as the classic sounds of Motown, jazz, and of course, opera, rock and roll was a bit of at thing apart in my house; Queen was okay, Metallica was not. My gravitation toward rock and roll coincided with the rise of so-called grunge and I loved “Sex Type Thing” and “Plush” the first time I heard them— the raw, bitingly aggressive sarcasm of the former, the swirling, surreal sensuality of the latter (and still do) — they’re thrilling pieces within the rock pantheon. As years went on, my love of the band’s work wavered, but the one thing I always loved, through “Big Empty” and “Interstate Love Song” and “Vasoline” and “Big Bang Baby”, through the cacophony of noise both in and outside the band, was the wonderful husky bray of Weiland’s voice, a lush baritone call that could be romantically plaintive one moment and blazingly angry the next. It was a voice made for rock and roll, made for belting not above but inside the noisy guitars and thumping bass lines and thrashing drums, straight into the minds and hearts of listeners. It’s a voice that still makes me pause in a way that very few in the rock world do. I wish I’d heard it live more often.

photo via

Pop culture is littered with figures who serve as torch-bearers for people who feel the world doesn’t understand them. But such a position feels too cliched for someone as vulnerable and self-loathing as Weiland. The last decade or so, he simply didn’t look like he had the strength to be any kind of torch-bearer, much less the desire. He wanted to be a rock star, and he was, but he was much more, too. I watched him slink off the stage that night, long ago, and as the lights were just coming up, a thought hit me, quite suddenly, that he looked so small and so damn lonely.  I suspect Weiland cared a great deal about what others thought — what artist doesn’t? — and found himself thrown aside, like so much useless detritus. I’d rather not be the one carrying bones of a beloved antihero into some highly stylized, steampunk version of eternity; unbundling the mundane details of a present reality is always more complicated. Weiland passed away at the age of 48, not 27, and had neither burned out nor faded away, but he was clearly damaged, for so many reasons, many of them made baldly public.

We all carry a certain amount of damage around. As I continue clearing out my house of old mementoes, I’m reminded of the person I was then, and can’t help but compare that girl, with all of her insecurities and anxieties, with the woman I am now. Some of the old worries are still there, but many have been replaced, if not vanished entirely. Damage isn’t something I want to romanticize, but it isn’t something to ignore, either; some very eye-widening things can result from some very horrific things. It’s not my place to draw lines between Weiland’s life and his art, and now, alas, his legacy — but I know one thing for certain: he was the first rock star I saw live who really made me lose my shit, but at the same time, made me think about… everything. I came out into the cold winter air after STP’s show that night bathed in sweat, and, for weeks afterwards, kept thinking about him, his voice, the show, that girl in the mom-jeans. Rock and roll has real power; every time I hear his voice, I’m reminded of that. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it bears repeating. it’s time to put on Core, Purple, and all the rest; it’s time to feel the power again.

Thank you, Jimmy

Photo via

A wave of deep sadness washed over me as I learned the news of Jimmy Scott’s passing. After that, gratitude. I am so blessed to have seen Jimmy Scott sing live.

It was a steamy June evening in 2012, in the basement supper-club of the popular Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem. Amidst the distant clattering of dishes and the clinking of wine glasses, Scott entered, humble, and clearly moved by his ecstatic reception, wheelchair-bound and physically frail, but with a fierce determination and passion that flickered across his smiling face. A microphone was lowered, and for the next hour or so, Scott closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and had the intimate room spellbound.

I first stumbled across the recordings of Jimmy Scott as a teenager. Some of the artists I admired had mentioned him as an inspiration in interviews, and, trusting them as great arbiters of taste, I followed their advice. This time period coincided with my discovery and embrace of a lot of jazz sounds: Ella Fitzgerald (whom I saw live a few years later), Miles Davis (who I’d already seen live, scant months before his passing), Dizzy Gillespie (who again, I saw live before his passing), Billie Holiday (alas), and Frank Sinatra (who I wish I could take a time machine to see live in the 1950s). While Little Jimmy fit within that jazz world, to say he was a “jazz singer” would, for me, be sticking him in a bin that was a bit too narrow for what he did, and really, who he was. Just as he himself defied norms (not at all by choice), his voice — and the way he used it — defied conventional categorization. He belonged in an ornate church the way he belonged in a smoky jazz club; that is to say, he was a bit of everything, embracing, synthesizing, integrating influences and styles, but then re-making, re-creating and expressing something wholly and entirely his very own. As Anthony Hegarty put it to The Quietus in 2011, he “sings like a sobbing diamond.”

It’s this very individuality and subsequent beauty that so astonishes and quiets us.

And yet, some might argue it cost him mainstream success. Jimmy’s name isn’t as well-known as say, Sinatra, or Dean Martin, or Tony Bennett. He doesn’t have the cachet of his jazz-singer brethren. But again, Jimmy wasn’t just one thing. He worked with Lou Reed and David Lynch; he was in a Hal Willner-produced tribute concert for Harry Smith; he was name-checked as inspiration by a variety of artists, including Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, the latter saying Jimmy was the only singer “who’d ever really made me cry.”

photo via

Lou Reed had said, “we all bow at the altar of Jimmy Scott.” Lou, I think, understood Jimmy in a profound way; both of them appreciated the deep relationship that has to exist between identity, artistry, beauty, and authenticity. Lou got it; Jimmy got it. And, in the brief moments the world had them, we, the audience, got it.

To say the experience of seeing Jimmy live was special would be far too reductive and trite; to say it was akin to going to church would be too predictable. There was something other-worldly, haunting, and wholly transcendent about hearing him live. Recordings may flit at the edges of his greatness, but, like a great opera singer (Pavarotti) or a wondrous instrumentalist (Gillespie, Davis), the nature of art, to say nothing of how we, the audience, experience it, changes in a dramatic way within the live realm. Never mind style; Jimmy Scott’s whole soul — in life, in love, in art, in sound and fury — was expressed in the blessed short hour I and the rest of Ginny’s Supper Club had with him that night. Experiencing Little Jimmy live re-affirmed the centrality of music and culture in my life, and reminded me of my responsibility to the authentic in everything I write and do. Sometimes we are all motherless children; Jimmy made us know, understand, and find the beauty in the pain, the pain in the beauty, always, unquestionably, unapologetically himself.

Live! Live!

The idea of imitation being the most sincere form of flattery is one I’ve been mentally turning back and forth the last while. If someone stands up on a stage and imitates someone else – well – does that make them a great artist too, or merely a gifted technician?

This question came into focus the last few months as I attended two different musical theater events, Million Dollar Quartet and Backbeat: The Birth Of The Beatles. Both works are based on real people and real music history events, and both involve the depiction of cultural touchstones. Constant comparison is an evitable part of such events, especially if one’s been exposed to the real thing -or even, bizarrely, a good imitation of the real thing.

In the former, my companion turned up her nose to the performer playing Elvis Presley, dryly noting she’d seen far better impersonators in concert, and noting the actor playing Johnny Cash wasn’t menacing enough; she’d seen (and met) the real thing years before, and the performance (/imitation) simply didn’t measure up. Similarly, attending Backbeat afforded me the opportunity of unfair comparison, having seen Paul McCartney perform at Yankee Stadium last year. It wasn’t so much the performer didn’t measure up that bothered me as it was the knowledge he never could.

At the end of Backbeat, people were cheering and applauding, out of their seats and dancing to the loud, raucous sound of “Twist and Shout” – but what were they cheering, really? The performance? Or the music itself -and their memories associated with the music? It struck me as a surreal sort of nostalgia, one magnified by years of people having a casual connection (however tenuous and imagined) with their pop idols via the internet, where a few clicks yields live performances they very well may’ve been at themselves. Who wouldn’t want to re-live happy memories, of happier times, with a younger self, bright and bushy-tailed, full of beer and brawl, piss and vinegar, howl and hope? The internet provides a quick, easy hit of nostalgia, available 24/7 – but I wonder, at what cost?

In June, I saw Patti Smith perform material from her remarkable new album “Banga.” Before an excited audience at the Barnes and Noble near Union Square, Smith and her band (including longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye) did three numbers from the album: the swirlingly romantic”April Fool”, the 50s ballad-like “This Is The Girl”, and the album’s title cut, with its fittingly literary inspiration. The audience smiled,  cheered, clapped, initially hesitant but eventually exuberant. There were no calls for “Dancing Barefoot” or “Because The Night” though I’m sure a few people were panting to hear them. This wasn’t about nostalgia -it was promotion, after all -but Smith seemed far more interested in forging an authentic connection with her audience; it was refreshingly to see an artist of her calibre so genuinely happy to be there, wandering through the crowd before the show, chatting, and later, proudly presenting new material and carefully explaining various songs’ origins. I found it especially encouraging to note so many young women in the audience, hanging on Smith’s every word. The smartphones and cameras were firmly away when she spoke. The crowd, quiet but ready to laugh at Smith’s knowing, occasionally self-deprecating asides, was genuinely interested in hearing -and experiencing -new material from an old favorite, first-hand.

New memories are forged through this sort of event; the holy spirits of exploration, expansion, and inspiration ask us, as arts lovers, to go see and do something just a bit different, regularly, rather than live in the spin cycle of favorite playlists, repeated ad nauseum. It’s nice to revisit old times and places (and people) with a few clicks (or swipes), but I wouldn’t want to re-live those times, live, at any concert; a few well-chosen old nuggets are just right when placed beside newer, more unfamiliar material. There’s always a wealth of new memories being  created -sometimes it’s new sounds that give them the nudge into creation. More than ever, I want to celebrate that creation.

(Photos from my Flickr stream)

Twenty Zoo

The desire to be accurate with anniversaries and remembrances grows over the years. When you don’t have kids or a partner to mark time for you with loose teeth and grey hairs, odd drawings and fancy diplomas, you have to choose other markers.

Twenty years ago I trundled off to Maple Leaf Gardens, then a rattling old hockey arena for a hard-scrabble team, for a rock concert. There were cars hanging from the ceiling. And screens. Lots of them.

I’d been leafing through Orwell, gawking at Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, sitting googie-eyed at the movies of Marlene Dietrich, and enchanted by the music of the Weimar republic. I’d been letting Ziggy Stardust and Kraftwerk lull me to sleep and jotting down strange thoughts and abstract shapes in journals spread across wooden floors alongside plates of half-eaten baguette and unfinished essays.
It’s okay if you don’t have a computer, the teacher had said, not everyone does. Just print neatly and it’ll be fine.
I trudged up the stairs of the Carlton subway stop to be confronted with a choir of rosy-cheeked faces.
‘Tickets! Anyone selling? Anyone? Please?’
I walked through the masses, hands stuffed in deep, smooth winter pockets.
‘You selling?!’ a swarthy, balding, wild-eyed man asked me as I reached the top of the stairs.
No way, I told him.
‘Come on. Give you a hundred bucks.’
I hadn’t even seen the band inside, but something in me said… go.
The lines for the loos were ridiculous. The lines for a bottle of water were ridiculous. Four dollars? Ridiculous. I was used to the concert hall, Lincoln Center, Roy Thompson Hall, Jesus, why was everyone pushing and shouting?
Settling in, I noted my side-view of the stage. The myriad of screens and cars and metallic pieces of spaced-out junk, poked out hither and thither, at all angles, like Picasso came to life via Flash Gordon. Oh. Was this supposed to be art? MOMA did it better.
The Pixies took the stage. I made a face. Who is this? God, that guy’s ugly. I thought about Pavarotti and Ziggy Stardust and the essay I was writing for Classics defending Clytemnestra. Really, she was the victim of historical sexism, and I had to set things straight, between bites of brie and glances at Ginsberg.
The Pixies left, I sighed with relief, my seatmate got popcorn. I doodled in my chip-faced journal. Time passed. I jotted down potential screenplay ideas, and put the journal in my backpack, where a copy of Naked Lunch was tucked away. It made no sense, but it made the clang-clang-clang of the subway easier.
My seatmate and I munched the popcorn, laughed at people’s hairdos, picking our teeth and gossiping, trading ideas and avoiding the yawning reality of graduation. He crumpled up the empty bucket and whipped it under his chair, ever-polite with a jaunty whistle and a bright-eyed grin.
I looked at the stage, and noted a small man wandering onto it. He wore dark over-large sunglasses, tight black leathers. He was looking around, curious, head cocked and smirking. A few people shrieked. Then a few more. I cocked my head back at him. Such a big head he had. Such big dark hair. And such big glasses. The arena was in an uproar. Oh? The show’s starting now?
It’s Jesus, I whispered sarcastically to my companion. He’s gonna save us all.

For the next two hours, I was witness to a marriage of words, music, ideas, art, sound, performance, and sheer theater such as I had never seen before. The snarling menace of “The Fly,” the shimmering sex of “Mysterious Ways,” the barking outrage of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” the shiny grandiosity of “Desire” … it was hard to verbalize what I was seeing… feeling… it was hard to take in, all at once, in one go. Jesus staggered along the outer rim of where the glass would be placed for hockey games, holding hand after hand after hand for support, a tiny smile spread across his lips. He reminded me of Dennis the Menace.
If you twist and turn away…
If you tear yourself in two again…
He was ridiculous -utterly ridiculous – but a very magnetic, theatrical presence. I was transfixed.
In 1992, I had no idea who Jenny Holzer was, or Mark Wojnarowicz, or the Emergency Broadcast Network. I’d vaguely heard of televangelists and had seen pieces of Apocalypse Now. I was months away from graduating high school and had a creative writing teacher who took students outside to a nearby cemetery for inspiration. I’d been to New York a dozen times and had hit all the major museums. I’d seen Pavarotti sing live in a few operas and eaten at top restaurants. But I’d never seen anything like this. Jesus was thrusting around in a silver suit, throwing money at the fawning crowd. Good grief.
ZOO-TV was a sexy, scintillating, stimulating soupcon of pop culture references both contemporary and classical, one that licked the brain cells even as it caressed the heart muscles in a winking, wide, over-friendly love embrace. I felt drawn to a life and way of thinking I’d only glimpsed at in all my trips to New York and Europe: it was full of arts, smarts, sauce, spice, and ever-present sex, wafting and floating above all things, its power only heightened by the intense, naughty mambo it held with a force equally as strong: love. Love for music, art, living, performing, the being-there-ness of the moment. All that stuff I’d been touching on in my Orwell-Burroughs-Kerouac-Ziggy-artsy-fartsy explorations. Authenticity as way of life. Authenticity as mask. Know who the hell you are… then play with it. Fuck up the mainstream.
It’s said this tour re-defined what big bands are, what they could do, who they could be, and how far they could reach. And that’s all true, but such an assessment misses the profound personal connotations. For me, ZOO-TV will always be a bigger thing than a tour, a band, a t-shirt, tons of gear, clever sayings, or flashy effects. It remains a marker, a compass, a talisman, a confusing pregnancy and messy birth, a shocking awakening to a wider world both without and within. It was grand opera and the intimate whisper ever. It was the absolute end of one phase, and the start of something much greater, far wider, unimaginably deeper, and vastly more frightening. And maybe, possibly, more thrilling. Welcome to your life; it’s all up to you now.
I go to encounter for the million time
the reality of experience
and to forge, in the smith of my soul,
To all involved in ZOO-TV, directly and not: thank you, from the bottom of my heart, now and forever more. I remember, I smile, I dance.
I’m dancing barefoot
Heading for a spin
Some strange music drags me in
makes me come up

(Quotes: James Joyce; Patti Smith)

Photo credits: Top, via cinesonic; middle via Democratic Underground; bottom, artwork by Jenny Holzer via Walk With The Crustaceans.

Black Dub Magic

Olympics? What Olympics?! If I had to award a gold medal, it would go straight to Black Dub.

The super-band is lead by incredible Canadian musician and music producer Daniel Lanois and features the super-charged pipes of Trixie Whitley, daughter of the legendary Chris Whitley. A few lucky souls have already seen them live this year, but Black Dub treated fans and curious music-lovers February 17th by streaming a live broadcast from New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. Together with the multi-talented Brian Blade on drums and bassist Chris Thomas, the concert was filmed by Here Is What Is collaborator Adam Vollick. During the hour-long set, the band covered a good bit of their own material along with some Lanois favorites, and proved why their upcoming release is one of the most anticipated of the year.

Images displayed in the run-up to the show were a surreal, ambient mix that reminded me of the work of artists as wide afield as the Emergency Broadcast Network and Bill Viola to Mark Rothko, and even Antonioni. The zipper of comments that ran along the side of the live feed was filled with impatience, excitement, and even a few hilarious observations from people in the Bowery’s capacity audience (ie: “I can’t see who’s in the VIP section. Granny’s eyesight is bad here.”) Watching the mix of images and reactions, there was, I felt, an truly intimate quality to this kind of live event; with just a cozy room to play in and a friendly crowd sharing thoughts and reactions in real time to Vollick’s every close-up and wide pan, it was the kind of communal, creatively connected experience that nicely reflected the band’s ethos.

“Surely” by Black DubAs for sound, trying to categorize Black Dub’s music is no easy task. It’s a mix of grinding rock, blues, early punk, and dark rockabilly, with an occasionally eerie, swampy, Waits-like slink and touches of Sunday-morning gospel. Watching them live from the Bowery, this defiance of definition was obvious, loud, and proud. Whether steaming through blues-influenced numbers like “Silverado“, the gospel-meets-blues hip-swaying meditation of “Nomad Knows“, or the earthy, 21st century psychedelia of “Ring The Alarm“, one was continually reminded (whether via rimshots, timbres, key changes, well-placed pauses, or a combination therein) of the magical chemistry at work between these accomplished individuals. Chemistry is a huge key to what makes Black Dub so special, particularly in this era of superstar narcissism, where every American Idol seeks to be a famous icon instead of a real musician. Black Dub turn their collective back on all that, focusing instead on a gorgeous exchange of ideas manifest in sound. In many ways, their work harkens back to jazz, with its focus on group dynamic, interplay, improvisation, and experimentation. The online audience lapped it up, perhaps hungry for a real musical experience that showcased real people playing real instruments.

One of the finest instruments on display was Trixie Whitley’s powerful, soul-searing voice. Moving comfortably from mellow to blasting to soft and pleading, Whitley proved herself a formidable front-woman. In addition to showing her incredible vocal chops, she also showed her musical versatility, bashing along with Blade on her own drumkit, playing a keyboard, strumming a guitar, or providing vocal back-up at points. With her black suspenders, white t-shirt and fitted black trousers, with blonde hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, she cut a stylish, strong figure reminiscent of rock feminist icons like Patti Smith or Debbie Harry in her early Blondie days. Lanois, in knit cap and low-slung jeans, played a few of his own hits, including a grinding, guitar-heavy version of “The Maker” with a shuffle-beat percussive undertow courtesy of Blade, and Lanois’ own effects-laden guitar work lending a virtuosic, woozy counterpoint to Whitely’s acidly sharp backing vocals.

Overall, the evening was a showcase of musical talent that conjured a kind of beauty rarely experienced in live show -whether in-person or viewed online. The balance of instrumental and vocal pieces, of thoughtful and straight rock-out numbers, of give and take between musicians, demonstrated both an awareness of their audience and a courage of creative convictions. Black Dub aren’t out to make sing-a-long favorites, but they are out to create a musical experience for both themselves and their listeners. I got the distinct feeling in watching them that no two concerts are ever quite alike. They’re so aware of their collective talent as a whole but never become arrogant within their individual egos. That doesn’t mean they don’t rock out, however. What a gorgeous showcase of adult rock and roll: real, lived-in, world-weary, and honest, or, as one viewer typed on the live feed, “fuzzy, smoky, and sensual -that’s what I came here for.” It could be the definition for rock in this century, and Black Dub are already ahead of the curve.

Photography by Brad Gilley.

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