Tag: power

James Levine: A Reckoning

Met opera NYC

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

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

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

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

Met opera lobby

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

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

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

met opera chandeliers

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

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

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

 

“The True Sound Of The Human Voice”

Photo via Opera Royal de Wallonie

Being in Europe again is a special sort of a treat; there’s an overwhelming number of cultural options at any given moment, and it can be easy to choose one thing, only to find out later there’s something else at the exact same moment that you just can’t miss.

One place I’d really love to be right now is San Francisco, specifically because of Berlioz, and more specifically, because of who is singing it. Thursday (that’s tonight), Friday, and Saturday (May 4, 5, 6), Maestro extraordinaire Charles Dutoit leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in performances of Berlioz’s magnificent Requiem, which features none other than American tenor Paul Groves, whose work I so thoroughly enjoyed on my last opera trip to Europe in February, when I heard him sing another work by the great French composer, his immense La damnation de Faust at Opera Royal de Wallonie.

I’ve always loved French opera, but Groves’ performance as Faust (which he stepped into at the eleventh hour, after the scheduled lead was ill) brought a whole new level to my appreciation, with his incisive phrasing, beautiful diction, and warm tone not only complementing the intricacies of Berlioz’s challenging score, but highlighting its power and poetry. It was exquisite, divine.

A proud New Orleans native, Paul was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions in 1991, and is a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program. He has an impressive roster of performances to his credit, and has appeared at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Los Angeles Opera, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Opéra National de Paris, and the San Francisco Opera, among many others. He returns to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC this December, as Danilo in the very fun, apologetically frothy The Merry Widow.

I had the chance to catch up with Paul as he prepared for his next Berlioz in San Francisco. Just like the man in person, Paul is forthcoming in his opinions, unpretentious, funny, generous, and warm, and like I said, he has a knock-your-socks-off voice, too. Bien sur!

What do you think the big differences are between French opera and other forms, like Italian, and German opera?

There are a few big differences between French opera and other forms, but the biggest has to be the language itself. French operas are built around the language more than any other forms. This is why it’s is so difficult to translate into other languages; I’ve never heard or sung a convincing translation of a French opera — whereas I have sung many wonderful translations of German, Italian and Russian works.

Therefore, it is particularly important to pay close attention to diction and vocal production when studying, and finally performing, French opera.



What kinds of demands does French opera place on you vocally?

I feel the language is very helpful for vocal technique — the closed vowels tend to keep the voice gathered when pronounced correctly. The demand comes from the extended tenor range of many French operas. A majority tend to be at least a step higher than most Italian or German romantic operas.

One of the reasons for this is the tenor technique was completely different at the time these operas were written. The tenors these roles were written for approached the high notes in a supported head voice, and the modern tenor technique is more of a chesty, manly sound in the high register. Now, this makes singing the role more difficult, but it’s also much more thrilling.

Why is Berlioz so special for you?

Berlioz was many years ahead of his time when you consider what was coming out of France and Italy at the time. His music wasn’t well-accepted until later in his life, and still today, many musicians have their doubts about what he intended with his orchestration. I’m doing one of his pieces at the moment which has a bass trombone-and-flute duet. Strange, but amazing when performed correctly.

In his operas, the drama is written into the orchestration and text is not necessary to feel the full power of the drama. An example is “The Ride to Hell” in the last part of La damnation de Faust.



Describe your first powerful opera memory.

Well, my first powerful opera memory is Pavarotti’s recording of Canio’s aria. My father, who was a conductor, brought home a Pavarotti album and after hearing it a few times, I conveniently added his album to my collection of records, which was mostly a Led Zeppelin and Beatles collection. 

I was completely blown away, but had no idea that all opera singers (tenors) didn’t sound the same. I found this out when a traveling opera company came to my town a year later to perform the complete opera. I was so disappointed in the tenor’s performance. Looking back now, he was probably fine. Who could live up to my expectations at the time? Only one guy!!!!!

Photo: Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times (via)

You’re going to be at the Met next season in The Merry Widow; how do you approach performing comedy versus tragedy? Do you have a preference? 

I don’t have a preference between comedy and tragic opera, but I get to do comic opera so infrequently that I really look forward to the fun and laughs, not only from the audience, but in the fun we’ll have in the rehearsal room. I’m playing opposite one of my best friends and opera soulmates, the lovely Susan Graham.

The challenging part for me and most singers is always the dialogue — how to make it real and heartfelt. We’re so used to relying on the music to help, but when the music is missing, it feels like we’re standing up there with our pants down!!

The one thing all newcomers to opera should know is…

… be prepared for the power of the unamplified human voice! This is the one thing that newcomers are so shocked about.

It is my life and art form, but I still get goose bumps when I hear a powerful, beautiful, natural voice. This is what separates opera and classical singing from all other art forms. Amplified performances can be enhanced, tuned and sometimes lip-synced. That’s not the case in classical singing; what you hear is the true sound of the human voice with all its flaws and gloriousness.

Sex, Power, Freedom (and still no happy endings)

Lucia Cervoni as Julie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Happy endings are yearned for, but they are increasingly rare.  Things don’t end well all the time; it’s this ugly fact Hollywood and the advertising industry don’t usually (if ever) acknowledge. And yet happy endings in culture are not, as some studios might have you believe, the perennial norm. Many of the best works in music and theatre have dire endings that, with the right production and handling, make one feel something by the closing of the curtain: sadness, wistfulness, a kind of quietude, an absolute tumult. Miss Julie, the 1888 play by August Strindberg, provoked shock at its premiere. At the closing of its operatic adaptation in Toronto lastnight, there was that same sense of shock, as well as confusion, sadness, disturbance. It’s that distinct mix that makes the chamber opera such a powerful work, and well worth seeing.

Sharleen Joynt (Christine, L) Lucia Cervoni (Julie, R)
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Director and Canstage General Director Matthew Jocelyn has brought Philippe Boesmans’ Julie to North America in collaboration with Soundstreams (an organization dedicated to programming new music), following a highly successful tour of the piece through Europe in 2009. As well as offering a night of dark laughs and deep thoughts, the work is a meditation on the nature of power between the sexes, and a fascinating portrayal of desire that, when mixed within the toxic boundaries of history and class structure, can be deeply destructive. The titular heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine is more appropriate), passionately performed by Canadian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni, is celebrating St. Johan’s night (also called St. John’s Eve, or Midsummer) by dancing and flirting with her servants, specifically the valet Jean (Clarence Frazer), who is engaged to the maid Christine (Sharleen Joynt). Julie and Jean eventually consummate their flirtations, and later plan to run away together, but don’t; the psychological machinations and manipulations between the two escalate, and the work ends with Julie committing suicide.

The work, which uses elements of naturalism, was influenced by elements of social Darwinism, though it has been interpreted in various ways onstage, through the lens of the American South (at CanStage in 2009) as well as the indigenous experience. The play lends itself well to explorations of power, both overt and subtle, and it’s here that composer Boesmans and director Jocelyn find their most compelling expression onstage. The scenes between Julie and Jean, in Christine’s shabby kitchen, are shot through with a heat that isn’t coming off any stovetop; the two alternate between seducing and slapping, insinuating and insulting,  coercing and commanding. Performers Frazer and Cervoni play off these contrasts nicely, seamlessly blending singing and acting into one satisfying whole. Boesmans’ jagged, icy score offers a beautiful contrast to the sexual heat, one that heightens the drama without sacrificing momentum, and utilizing a rhythmic interplay that propels the action forwards. As Music Director Leslie Dala notes in the program notes, Boesmans “creates a remarkable amount of contrast with only 18 instruments.” These instruments blend perfectly with the sparse, almost Baroque-like score (which was complemented by Alain Lagarde’s spare set and Michael Walton’s plaintive lighting), and more than once, the conversational nature of Boesmans’ work brought to mind Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, recently performed at the far larger Four Seasons Centre as part of the Canadian Opera Company’s Pyramus and Thisbe production.

Sharleen Joynt (Christine) & Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

There’s a power in conversation, whether it’s with one’s own self or with another; putting that conversation to music in a way that clearly, concisely conveys situation and emotion, and indeed, marries the two in a dramatic embrace, is an art, one Boesmans has mastered, whether in his 1993 opera Reigen (based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde) or 1999’s Wintermarchen (based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale), another work concerned with power that lends itself to various onstage interpretations. So much of Boesmans’ work is powered by a sense of intimacy coupled with the dramatic, and here, Julie‘s three performers rise to the challenge, combining a strong sense of timing, compelling physicality, and very good singing to create a powerful and intimate operatic experience.

This sense of intimacy was aided in no small way by the venue. With its cozy design and seating for roughly 800 or so, Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre offered an immersive and immediate experience of Boesmans’ work, making the evening’s final image (a hanging staged in silhouette) all the more disturbing. Certainly, some unfamiliar with the Strindberg weren’t expecting it, especially in light of the dark laughs the piece had enjoyed just moments before. Others, possibly, were so taken with Cervoni’s passionate portrayal of the character, in all her dazzling contrasts — sexual power, timid girlishness, haughty snobbery, begging desperation, loudmouth demands, soft admissions — that it seemed a pity to lose her.

Lucia Cervoni (Julie) & Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

But that unease is, I suspect, rooted in an audience desire for happy endings, something Strindberg has violently denied. Rather, one is never allowed to get too comfortable with the characters, the situation, or the work’s swirling sub-themes of erotic submission and sadomasochistic power plays. Jocelyn effectively uses this discomfort by consistently underlining sharp contrasts (between characters, reactions, even visual textures) and utilizing effective blocking that highlights the character’s relationships to both each other and their surroundings. With a drum consistently beating, the quiet staging of the ending — certainly unhappy but also entirely inevitable — offers a final statement that is at once disturbing, poetic, profound. Justice, or just a waste? Unlike Armide (who has her own unhappy ending of sorts), Julie isn’t changed by love, or the experience of it, but rather, seems destroyed by the awareness of its harrowing absence. Her choice at the end is driven by an outside force, a symbolically male one she’s always looked to and given her power over to, for validation, acceptance, a strange sense of what she thinks of as freedom. Julie may be powerful in play, but she’s not power-full in life. This, perhaps, is Julie’s greatest tragedy, though the opera suggests that making peace with the sharp and contrasting desires of life and our human desires is not the easy, blissful path we may believe, much less actually want. Happy endings? No, merci. Harrowing drama? Oui, encore!

The Power And The Glitter

There’s something deeply moving about seeing Gustav Klimt’s work in-person.

I missed that opportunity in Vienna years ago, but, thanks to the Neue Galerie here in New York, I got it lastnight. Shown as part of their current exhibition Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, the work, tastefully incorporating design, art, and various writings, is on view at the museum through June 27th.
After checking bags and jacket, I walked up the narrow, winding staircase (reminding me so much of the narrow passageway I climbed in Vienna, to see one of the flats Beethoven lived in) and, on the second floor, caught the unmistakable sight of Klimt’s signature golden swirls. I entered one gallery and immediately had to check myself. The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (I) stood before me in all its glinting, glistening glory. I almost cried.
Klimt is, for me, one of those painters with such a singular vision and style, any amount of copying or imitation just comes off as hokey and dumb. The closest I ever saw was the costuming for Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Oscar-winner Eiko Ishioka really captured the rich, feminine, sumptuous beauty of Klimt while keeping an eye on his penchant for strong contrasts and soft shapes against strong ones. There’s a nod to outfits in the exhibit too, with dresses shown beside or near paintings -a nice nod to the role of fashion in culture. I was especially thrilled by the billowing white dress with cascading layers and complex, thick-thick textures; it reminded me so much of Ishioka’s design for Lucy’s wedding gown/shroud, that I half-expected Sadie Frost to come creeping around a corner of the wood-and-dark-rugged Galerie.
Seeing his work up-close and in-person for the first time, after having loved it for over 20 years, was a much more emotional experience than I anticipated -and the work itself flew off the canvas (or sheet) with a kind of casual ease I wasn’t expecting. Outside of a few early works that are featured, it all looks…like bleeding, breathing, blinking. Each work, whether painted in rich oil colors or drawn with pencil, looks like a vein that’s been opened. Something divine -and very powerful -pours out on those surfaces. And more often than not, it sees like it was women who inspires the most rolling, flowing, richly memorable moments.
Women play such a central role in Klimt’s work; powerful, beautiful, potent, and occasionally terrifying, they are, for me, the sun around which Klimt’s artistic output revolved. This sense of female power -and of the power of their sexuality, and his worship of the two combined -was intoxicating to behold. I was especially pleased to see a selection of his erotic drawings on display. As people shuffled by awkwardly, I stopped, and gazed. Klimt was capturing women in their most intimate moments, but there was nothing dirty or lascivious in his depiction. The mix of private and personal -and performance – is intoxicating. Hand-wringing about the line between high art and porn aside, it isn’t the guy drawing who has the power here -it’s the women with the sighing smiles. Patricia Boccadoro, writing at Culture Kiosk, correctly notes that
when one stands in front of these frankly very erotic drawings of young girls carried away by their own desire, eyes closed, lying on their backs with their legs wide apart and masturbating, they seem natural and are not at all embarrassing. …They are beautiful in their abandon, lascivious, but fragile and vulnerable, and one senses that the artist was touched by what he saw. There is nothing perverse or humiliating…
He was touched, but I sense, also turned on. And maybe, as The Economist wisely observed, that once Klimt was “(s)tripped of his wet palette and gold, it is the artist who appears naked in the images, offering a startling insight into (his) own private world.” The raw, honest vulnerability of eroticism has a power all its own, one we’ve yet to fully embrace more than a century later.
I thought about Klimt, and art, and powerful women a lot lastnight, as I walked by dozens of posters advertising Lady Gaga’s show on HBO and hundreds of push-up-bra’d-and-super-high-heeled young women, as I carefully weighed fattening dinner options and went out in a low-cut, slinky black dress, and as I pulled a sweater on and put on my flat shoes before getting on the subway. What constitutes female power? Is it bling? Boobs? Boys? On a larger level, is it okay to be perceived as purely a sexual being? Where’s the person beneath the parts? Does anyone care? Also, I keep wondering about the role of trust between an artist and muse -or, for that matter, being a man and woman. I’m not sure I’d ever be comfortable with any artist sketching me in so vulnerable a state but… that’s the power of these drawings: they betray an extraordinary level of trust that translates into a new, empowering form of male/female relating.
Seeing Klimt’s work up close gave me a whole new awareness of not only the shifting ground of artistry and the beauty of orchestrating its creation, but of the power I, as a woman, hold, and how easily, quickly, and thoughtlessly I give it away in little tidy parcels every day. I aspire to be Adele. I aspire to be as free as the women in those drawings. I want to vanish into Klimt’s beautiful, glittering world. Alas, I’m stuck with a sweater over a dress, navigating a maze of colorless subways in dirty, crazy, loud New York. At least the Neue is close by.

Power Play


Power is rapidly becoming a big issue in the Haiti crisis: who rules amidst chaos? It’s clear no one wants to return to the old system. But what kind of change hath tragedy wrought?

I thought about this in going over a release I received about a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloody play Macbeth -a work that revolves around ideas of various kinds of power. Toronto-based company Theatre Jones Roy has taken this idea of power in political and military arenas, and turned it inside out, choosing instead to focus on the push-pull machinations between Macbeth and his wife. With Macbeth Reflected, the idea of power as shared between two lovers is examined with pinpoint precision. Lead performers John Ng and Mary Ashton provided some solid insights into the character and the work, reflecting the notion that Shakespeare didn’t just write for his time, but for all time, and perhaps especially, this time.

What’s the one thing that characterizes the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

Mary: They are partners in almost everything they do. They desire and fulfill their dreams together. Unfortunately, their dreams become so unhealthy that their partnership eventually crumbles.

With the emphasis on relationship in this production, how does it change the nature of the tragedy?

John: The body count is definitely much lower, and you will find certain character plots, known history and supernatural elements of the original have been eliminated or severely reduced. The retelling has placed this tragedy back in the hands of the two who are ultimately responsible for their own suffering and, in so doing, provide some insights into human psychology.

What role does sex play?

Mary: Sex, in the coital sense, as with any relationship, plays a big role whether it’s present or not. With Lady M being “unsexed”, she desires more than anything to be ruthless in her pursuit and to have no remorse or fears weigh her down which were attributes often associated with the “softer sex” in Shakespeare’s time. Her femininity still exists and she most definitely uses it to her advantage.

How much does their being childless influences their choices and thought processes?

John: The loss has affectively reshaped (the couple’s) moral universe. Since we were robbed once before, we’ve become acutely aware when a perceived injustice is done upon us. We’re hardened. Very hard.

Mary: It’s been an integral part in the development of (Lady Macbeth). I am fairly certain, based on the text, that she has had a baby. Where that baby is now, the text doesn’t indicate but certainly there is loss. Loss and/or lacking can drive people to do unimaginable things and often times, with the best intentions.
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That idea, of a lack driving people to do horrible things, feels so timely and intimate, even as it’s timeless and epic. Perhaps this bloody tale of two lovers has something to teach past the old high school interpretation of “absolute power corrupting absolutely.” Perhaps power -and the ways it is used and abused in relation to those in need -is much more subtle, if disturbing, an argument. Those subtleties are worth considering.

Macbeth Reflected runs to January 24th at the Lower Ossington Theatre in Toronto.
For more information, go to artsboxoffice.ca.

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