Best of books in 2019

Here are the favourites of 2019. A lot of non-fiction this year, it seems.

Suzy Hansen: Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World (on American cluelessness about their own country’s actions abroad)
Heidi Waleson: Mad Scenes and Exit Arias (the story of the rise and fall of the New York City Opera)
Jenny Erpenbeck: Go, Went, Gone (a group of Syrian refugees in Germany and a retired German bourgeois who volunteers to teach them German get framed as a story of not only one nation/society, but of one kinship too)
Dionne Brand: Theory (if Casaubon was a woke lesbian academic specializing in post-structuralism)
Curzio Malaparte: Skin (the Allies find devastation in post-WW2 Naples and contribute to it)
Emmanuel Carrere: Limonov (torn over this one. Excellent genesis of the Putin-ian society; on the other hand, an intellectual’s obsession with a fascist)
Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary (master piece. Not all of her books are (read one which decidedly is NOT this year) but this one… yes)
Vivian Gornick: The Odd Woman and the City (hmm… dunno. Brilliant and also bitter and petty at times)
Helen Weinzweig: Basic Black with Pearls (A modernist classic set in a Toronto haunted by people from the narrator’s past and a man she needs to meet that may or may not exist. Yes CanLit has had modernists! We’re missing out if we forget them)
Mark Thompson: Birth Certificate: Story of Danilo Kiš
Olja Savićević: Adios,Cowboy 
Caroline Slocock: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me (a civil servant’s memoir which shows an unexpected side to Thatcher)
Adam Bunch: The Toronto Book of the Dead
Hannah Fry: Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine
Deborah Cameron: Feminism
Aleksandar Hemon: Book of My Lives
Hemon: Love & Obstacles
Hemon: My Parents/This Does Not Belong to You
Joanna Murray: The Female of the Species
Barbara Hosking: Exceeding My Brief (another intriguing civil servant memoir… by a gay woman who is now 93)
Seth: Clyde Fans
Laura Beatty: Lost Property
Frances Widdowson & Albert Howard: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry
Gabriel Josipovici: Goldberg Variations
Richard Stursberg: The Tangled Garden: Canada’s Culture Manifesto for the Digital Age
Doug Saunders: Maximum Canada: Toward a Country of 100 Million
Audre Lorde: Your Silence Will Not Protect You
Jon Day: Homing
Denise Riley: Time Lived, Without Its Flow
Ben Lerner: The Topeka School (while I preferred his 10:04 much more, this is also worth reading)
Zadie Smith: Grand Union
Ted Gioia: A Subversive History of Music
Rachel Cusk: Coventry

 

2019 in rearview mirror

The Pite-Young Revisor was the hightlight of the year. It’s probably harder to be moved by it than by Betroffenheit – which may explain some of the puzzled reviews by Toronto dance critics – but it’s a larger work of art in every sense of the word. The work has multiple co-producers from around the world, so if it comes anywhere near you in 2020, do not miss it. I saw it (twice… and the tickets weren’t cheap) at the Canadian Stage.

Now on to the usual classification.

OPERA

Tim Albery-directed Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Opera North which I watched in Leeds, was the standout. Completely unknown (to me) singers all impressed, and the set was some sort of golden multi-purpose edifice that revolves (by  Leslie Travers) – absolutely the most was made of it.  Christian Curnyn conducted what turned out to be a spritely, cohesive, gleaming performance.

Lucie Chartin (Cleopatra) and Maria Sanner (Giulio Cesare) in a photo by Alastair Muir

Locally, the COC’s Elektra revival with Christine Goerke wasn’t too shabby either. I also saw an oldie Rosenkavalier production in Leipzig with the gorgeous-looking and sounding Wallis Giunta, but though musical side of it all was lush, more actual acting by some of the principals would not have gone amiss. The Little Opera That Could award this year goes to Pomegranate, which I hope to see re-mounted with a different cast. Dud of the Year? The ENO Orphée, which I abandoned at the intermission. Torture. Granted, Alice Coote will never be my cuppa, but even so: had the production been different, I’d have soldiered on.

Via Met in HD, I saw Nico Muhly’s Marnie and I’m glad I did. I read the novel soon after and enjoyed being able to compare the Hitchcock film with the novel with the opera. While in both the movie and the novel, Marnie’s husband rapes her – which in the movie slooowly results in her getting used to her situation and male sexuality, and in the novel things end on the status quo, she’s resigned to her life – the opera removes the rape from the story. Marnie’s husband in the opera accepts her refusal and doesn’t force himself on her. Why the Met-commissioned team made that decision, and whether the opera is better work of art or a less truthful one for it, I’ll leave to you to ponder.

IN CONCERT

Gemma New conducting Hamilton Philharmonic in Mahler 5
Vesuvius Ensemble’s The Plucking Opera
Agnela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations
The Happenstencers give Bach a re-do, via Vivier, Southam, Dusapin et al.
Barbara Hannigan conducting the TSO

MUSEUMS, GALLERIES

Sir John Soanes Museum (London, UK) all the way! It had a big Hogarth exhibit when I visited, but the museum’s permanent collection is a Disneyworld for anybody interested in the 18th century.
Fondation Luis Vuitton (Paris, France) for Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World.

THEATRE

The Piaf/Dietrich musical was very pleasant (and has been recently extended into January).
Michael Healey’s 1979 has some incredibly accomplished scenes but it relied too much on text projections to let the audience know what’s going on and the cross-sex casting didn’t quite work.
Robert Lepage’s take on Coriolanus was good fun. This I saw in cinema via Stratford in HD.
And that is where I draw a blank. I’ve seen some atrocious Toronto theatre last year – The Cherry Orchard at Crow’s Theatre, Four Sisters at Theatre Centre – which put me off theatre altogether.

CINEMA

A good year. It opened with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, which though eeever so slightly sexist, is a work of art quand même. Icelandic film Woman at War about an eco-terrorist who applies to adopt a child from Ukraine has everything a film needs. Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo are fine but I won’t remember them in a few years. Johanna Hogg’s The Souvenir on the other hand is ah-mazing, as is her entire opus (I’ve finally seen Exhibition, thanks to a Tiff retrospective, the only remaining film of hers that I hadn’t and… she’s a fecking genius, no ifs or buts). Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily was a riot. Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece is Patricia Rozema’s best film. What to say of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire that the raving critics and the adoring audiences already haven’t? (Which I saw at the London Film Festival, where it was much easier for me to get a ticket than at my local international festival. Tiff is a lost cause. Don’t even bother trying.) The 2019 Palm D’or, Parasite, was good and the Berlin winner, Synonyms, even better, I thought. Official Secrets with Keira Knightly was a decently done whistleblower drama. Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia (based on Eileen Atkins’ play) was a very smart delight. Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone, which puts the Greek heroine in an immigrant family in Quebec, is a sophisticated brain bon-bon, if perhaps not as engaging as one might expect. And 63 Up and Knock Down the House stand out among the documentaries.

I shall return for the 2019 in Books. Till tomorrow!

Conversations about Canada: Monica Garrido

The year is not over yet! The new Conversations about Canada just dropped.

Multi-talented actor, sketch & improv comedian and boy band drag king Monica Garrido talks about:
– why she decided to move to Canada (hint: Degrassi High)
– her early obsession with Marina Abramovic and Matthew Barney
– when not to tell your parents everything
– if we immigrate in order to put big enough distance between us and our parents & community– and then realize we overdid it?
– if it’s easier to make friends with other immigrants than with the locals
– why she is still a little freaked out by the widespread recreational use of drugs in wealthy societies (me too!)
– falling for a local WASP girl
and much more!

HERE

And here she is on Baroness von Sketch:

When a woman thinks of man, her thinking is praised

I watched the streaming of Olga Neuwirth’s new opera Orlando (libretto Catherine Filloux and Olga Neuwirth) today and have a few thoughts – mostly on the libretto.

Which is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, though the story here continues past the end of WW2 and into our own era. The early scenes follow the novel relatively closely. The events at the court of Elizabeth I when the young and dashing page Orlando catches her eye and is granted a title and land, is followed by him meeting the Russian princess Sasha on the coldest winter in living memory, having his heart broken, and withdrawing to his country pile. Waking up from the stupor, he declares I will become a poet! which leads to his messy aspirational sponsorship of the Prominent Poet Mr. Greene who patronizes him (but whose patron he is) and who eventually writes a parody of Orlando’s long work-in-progress poem The Oak Tree. Dispirited, Orlando cheers himself up by furnishing and learning how to appreciate his ancestral home.

While in Constantinople as the ambassador for the King Charles II, Orlando falls in deep sleep and wakes up a woman. His persistent suitor from previous life, a duchess, continues the pursuit once Orlando as a woman is back home in England, but she is revealed to be a man. This character as far as I can tell was excised in the opera (correct me if I missed her). She (Orlando) continues wanting to write and hosts the great writers of the era, including Pope, Dryden and Addison. Critic Nick Greene still lives (and is getting uglier and uglier features as the opera progresses – he is the ugliest in our own age). While male Orlando’s poetic efforts were mocked because he was an aristocrat, female Orlando’s right to write anything in the first place are questioned because she’s a woman. Still, she presses on – it helps that she’s a wealthy aristocrat — publishes The Oak Tree, gets an award for it, wins a legal dispute over her country mansion (this is fiction after all), meets a feminine male sea captain campily named Mermeduke Shelmerdine. The masculine woman is attracted to the feminine in the man, and he by her butchness, and they marry. The novel ends there, which is the day it was supposed to be published in Oct 1928. The opera aims to continue until the day of the performance, Dec 2019.

There are some very effective scenes in this, novel-based part of the opera. The narrator is initially a very good MC (played by Anna Clementi; the originally scheduled Fiona Shaw bailed out, and I don’t blame her). Throughout the opera she could be the narrator of Orlando, maaybe for a second here and there Virginia Woolf herself, but as the story continues, she’s a narrator who definitely lives today and uses some very contemporary vernacular. In the Elizabethan era, she reads the probably most famous quote attributed to the queen “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”, which was great: I thought, okay, this libretto gets it, this is a good sign. 

The three fairies of Modesty, Purity and Chastity fussing over the sleeping Orlando’s bed before she wakes up as a woman is fine touch, and the narrator and Orlando are given some good lines about this unfortunate outcome. Visit to a hairdresser now takes an hour… skirts are nothing but a bother… but do I really be chaste year in year out?… etc. The female Orlando is at first clad in a ridiculous pink dress adorned with gajillion flowers – fine, the contrast is the point, sure. The chorus is singing Woman: fold upon fold which is accompanied by appropriately sensuous imagery. Narrator then lists all that Orlando won’t be able to do anymore – and it’s a long list. All she’ll be able to do is pour tea to the lords and ask Do you like it. Next scene: Orlando as she offers Pope, Dryden and Addison sugar cubes for their tea, which quickly leads to a scene of one of the men proposing, propositioning and pestering.

Did I mention, there’s a countertenor singing some sort of Guardian Angel role throughout. That doesn’t exist in the book, and there is no need for it in the opera either. Yet here we are. Even in Orlando, an opera based on a book written by Virginia Woolf for and about her former lover Vita Sackville West, a man has to be cast in a prominent role. Whenever a scene would complete itself, there he’d go, commenting AGAIN as if he mattered.

Because let us remember the basics. Woolf wrote this fanciful multi-century ‘biography’ as her affair with Vita was ending. Both women were roughly what we’d now call female homosexuals – Vita very actively so, and her devastating previous relationships with Violet Trefusis lives on in a number of extraordinary cultural creations, including the Sasha-Orlando story – and both were married to men who they loved (asexually) and who loved them back (same). (While Leonard was as far as anybody knows hetero, Harold Nicolson had numerous affairs with men – while also remaining in a fairly good marriage with Vita. It’s possible that Marmaduke is based on him). But let us not get bogged down in Bloomsbury promiscuity: the point is, lesbianism and any kind of homosexuality was then considered an ‘inversion‘ of sorts, an innate reversal of sex and sexual preference – your inner male desire for the female sex makes you a female invert – and this is probably in part what’s behind the story of the changing of the sex through the centuries. What it also comes from, and this more directly, is Vita’s inability to inherit the ancestral home Knole (look this castle up, will you) due to her sex. It went to some male cousin instead. As far as I know, women still can’t inherit most of the hereditary peerage titles in England, not even if they become trans men.

So potentially, Orlando the opera could have tapped into this and have been indeed an opera about the freedom of the female sex to do whatever it damn well pleases – write and publish, inherit property, become ambassador or soldier, in addition to the more traditionally gendered activities and choices. But this opera is that only up to a point – when it dissipates into I’m not sure what. There is a streak of that, I can’t deny it – Orlando’s struggle to have his/her artistic creation taken seriously does appear at a few key places, and the Mr Greene figure stands for all cultural gate-keepers and powerful critics, and I am guessing some of his features comes from the composer’s and librettist’s own experience with gatekeepers. The Knole business is completely removed from the story. In fact Vita and Virginia are both cast aside about half way in, as the opera moves to some more bizarre areas.

When the history reaches the Victorians the narrator suddenly changes tone to a very different, didactic, humourless, contemporary one. “Patriarchal family was considered ideal family, but there is significant increase in child abuse in the Victorian era,” she declaims while the femininely dressed Orlando observes a chorus of children in pyjamas and the video projects an image of an adult man at a door and a child looking from the pillow. Increase in child abuse, compared to what? Or is it increase in the reporting of child abuse? Middle classes or all classes? Child labour is not of interest, I take it? “Children need care and protection” is an actual line that Lindsey was given to sing in this scene. The narrator goes for some time about the victims of incest feeling guilt and the family members’ inability to stop abuse, and it’s all rather puzzling and feels parachuted. Wise of Fiona Shaw to dodge it. (The production has also lost the original director, Karoline Gruber, and ended up being finalized by Polly Graham, the artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera.) “From now on, Orlando will be committed to rewriting the history from the point of view of the victim and outsider”, says the Narrator, to which I say, sure, let’s go.

But then we get the video sequences that rush us through the milestones of the century. The POV is roughly Anglo-European with the inevitable excursion to some US and Vietnam War imagery and the selection is fairly narrow, whole bunch of Europe (not to mention the world events) ignored. We are rushed to 1980s, back in England it seems, and punk is happening, there’s a girl in plaid suit who Orlando ends up kissing for a long time, but she is soon gone from the proceedings.

The party segment, which is meant to show that all kinds of desires and loves and bodies are allowed to flourish now… is a lucklustre affair. The dominant voice is the performer Justin Vivian Bond, who is meant to be Orlando’s ‘child’ in our own era. Really? You couldn’t find a gender-non-conforming female like dunno any number of living writers or filmmakers or someone like Megan Rapinoe or Kara Swisher or some modern equivalent of Storme DeLarverie or even some of the male drag performers from the RuPaul school of sashaying? The statements declaimed during the party are feeble too. There’s a lot of “born this way” Lady Gaga parroting and yet “it’s glorious to be a they”. “Fuck the patriarchy”: is that the most eloquent that “Orlando’s child” can get?

Justin Vivian Bond is one of those people who insist they be called a “they” and claims s/he is “non-binary”. Everybody else is happy to live the life of a gender stereotype, the classification suggests, except for the “they” people. They have stepped out of sex and gender by fiat, you know! And yet women can’t self-identify out of oppression: women are oppressed because of what their bodies are, what their reproductive function is, what their height and strength is (most women can be easily overpowered by most men), and yes also what gender roles awaits them upon birth. The world will still correctly sex the women who will be raped or who need to gestate offspring, the exploitation will proceed undeterred however we decide to ‘identify’. Plus, any male should be allowed to wear dresses and look like JVB, without having to do anything about their pronouns or body. That is the more radical thing, that is what the Orlando children would do, people like David Bowie, Robert Smith, Boy George, Quentin Crisp, Grayson Perry, Russell Kane.

The inability to inherit, become a writer and other obstacles shown in this opera that Orlando faces are actually relatively lucky ones. In Western Balkans and other parts of the world, this thing still exists which is called selective abortions: early detection of a child’s sex – there’s science for that, you only need to find your way to a private clinic in another jurisdiction – leads to the getting rid of female fetuses. So those girls had no chance to “identify” in any way. As soon as the material reality of their sex was determined, they were doomed. I don’t need to hammer on about the femicide (every two or three days anywhere in the world a woman is killed by a man she knows, often an ex or current partner) and various other things that happen to women that have nothing to do with how individuals declare themselves but with their sex.

So… trans activists are Orlando’s children? Not really. Defiant, non-conforming women who overcome societal limitations posed on them are Orlando’s children,  as well as women who *survive* – there are so many of us now who are surviving and were never meant to, who are finally finding poetry and pleasure in our lives, wrote Audre Lorde. This should never be forgotten.

I conclude that sadly the second half of Orlando the opera which paradoxically aims to step out of the charmed life of the high classes that populate the first part – is somewhat uninformed, oblivious of the current lgbt conversations, massively bourgeois (you have to adore the scene in which the haute couture Comme des garçons-clad chorus and extras shouted WE ARE THE PEOPLE) and rather purposeless. Is it about liberation of women or is it about every single thing under the sun, climate change, the liberation of men from their own gender yokes, exploitation of workers in Amazon dot com depots? (There’s a brief scene showing workers in a huge warehouse filled with goods, packing and shipping things: good idea, but underdeveloped, because this scene quickly ends, as does the contemplation of working conditions in low-wage jobs.) You could make an argument that all that is connected to the liberation of the female sex, but 1) the libretto doesn’t do a good job of it, and 2) opera should have a focus of some kind.

At least there is Kate Lindsey’s vocal stamina (and legs) to hold it all together, just about. We’ll always have that.

The official description of Orlando by the Vienna State Opera

Fugue State

the printed program

The Happenstancers strike again.

A shape-shifting ensemble of musicians formed around clarinetist (not to mention visual artist) Brad Cherwin recently concluded their first proper season with a concert on the theme of fugues: from the actual Bach fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier transcribed for woodwinds and strings to the pieces by our contemporaries whose music, Cherwin argues, is in conversation with Bach. As you can see in the program, the fugues themselves tend to return, but as the evening progresses they are getting more and more unrecognizable. The next to last one is recomposed by Cherwin and cellist Sarah Gans in the manner of Terry Riley’s In C, and the very last one, the Whisperfugue, is played with minimum attack on each instrument (barely any breath coming into the clarinet, the lightest of touches on strings etc) and the phrase that repeats loses the note at the end each time it returns. This was quite a tense (and intense) experience, as everybody performed in an unnatural suspended mode.

The Augusta Read Thomas, Ann Southam, Vivier and Dusapin pieces were all extraordinary. Clearly no fillers in this program! Vivier’s and Dusapin’s pieces only posit one woodwind against one string instrument, but each teases out the difference in the colour of the sound and makes most of that difference. Dusapin’s (clarinet-cello) almost flirt with the klezmer and Piazzolla vibes and it has a certain heat (dare I say warmth) that not a lot of composers in the modernist tradition practice.

l-r Aleh Remezau, Brad Cherwin, Jennifer Murphy, Sarah Gans, Brenna Hardy-Kavanagh

The concert started a little awkwardly with a stiff, brio-less rendition of the first fugue. Inordinate amount of time was spent on tuning before and after each piece, but with a program like this, you just can’t be irritated by it. Do whatcha have to do, I have all the time. The first piece had me wondering though if the instruments were period ones, and if that was the reason the thing sounded so somber and down half a step. Things improved immediately with the second piece when the ensemble found its electrical current and did not let it subside. The only contemporary piece of the evening that sounded ever so slightly dry and academic was Omar Daniel’s Giuoco delle coppie for two violins.

Cherwin creates visuals for each of the concerts — both the imagery and the musical programming are formed at the same time, as one entity. He explained in one of the intervals that what ignited (heh) this show of the superimposed and transposed and transcribed Bach was the Andy Warhol portrait of Friedrich the Great at the Sans-Souci in Potsdam. “As soon as I saw it, I knew: this is it, this is what needs to be done, Bach in electric colours”. The concert took place in the still not entirely gentrified but very popular Geary Avenue area, at the Costume House just east of Dufferin. It’s a new, relatively affordable loft place to rent and it has its charms (ventilation kicking in adds a layer of sound to the performance, as does the looong train passing on nearby tracks). The tinkered-with Bach faces (by Cherwin – pen tablet drawings) were looking at us from every corner. I’m really enjoying the four Bachs in outrageous colours that I brought home.

There will be new good stuff to announce in the next year, maybe even a mini-music festival, and an all-Dusapin evening. Let’s all stay tuned.

The Happenstancers from another angle

Interview: Celia Hawkesworth

To visit Celia Hawkesworth, I took a Chiltern Lines train from London’s Marylebone Station to a village next to hers known, it turned out, for its outdoors shopping mall in the guise of ye olde main street. The train had announcements in Arabic and Chinese – something I haven’t seen anywhere else in England – and this hybrid of the rural with the global served as our conversation starter. How amazing that the diverse London youth and entire families would travel to Oxfordshire for brand-name shopping.

The moment we sat under the awning of one of the cafes (or was it an Itsu?), it started raining, but we soldiered on. I was finally meeting the legendary translator of Serbo-Croatian (today: Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian – etc.) and no amount of accompanying English drizzle was going to spoil the main event.

Between 1971 and 2002, Hawkesworth taught Serbian and Croatian in the Department of East European Languages and Culture at London’s largest university, the UCL. She translated about 40 books from South Slav authors into English – 39 as of last count, a number that’s likely to grow – and published several books of her own writing.

Celia Hawkesworth

CH: I’m currently translating a US-based Bosnian writer, Semezdin Mehmedinović. He wrote this beautiful memoir in three parts. One part is about when he had a heart attack, then the middle piece is when he’s travelling with his son who’s a photographer, and the third bit is about his wife who had a stroke and clearly eventually dies, although he doesn’t take you there. I’ve translated it for Granta; it’s coming out next year. The editor said to me Oh, I knew it was long but didn’t know it was that long. But I’m going to do it because it’s astounding.

It’s totally unsentimental. From time to time very funny. Beautiful. Tender, understated.

LP: Well thanks to you and various small English-language publishers, I’ve discovered a lot of Balkan writers I had no clue about. Like, Nenad Veličković…

I don’t want you to ask me too many questions about contemporary scene, because as I said earlier, I’m in my village now. What I like about my current situation is, in the old days, when I was working at the University of London I used to come across things and say to myself, This is wonderful – I’d translate a bit, then send it around to various publishers who would then say Yes interesting, but not saleable. And that went on for years. So I stopped doing that. I just do my own things now and check email and there’ll be a message saying Would you be interested in doing this? And I say, Oh yes. When I was working in London and was constantly in touch with new things, but now I’m really terribly out of touch.

You did mention Nenad Veličković and I have liked his work in the past – especially Konačari. I discovered him when I was going fairly regularly [to the region] for work. I had this lovely friend who taught history of literature in Sarajevo who was Nenad’s friend. I think that’s how that happened.

You translated a lot of Dubravka Ugrešić and Daša Drndić. How did you come across each woman, do you remember?

I kept meeting Dubravka at various events in the country, particularly in Zagreb, so she’d be at any given literary gathering. She was tremendous; I really loved my association with her. I love her work, that was a real privilege to be able to do that.

I had heard about Daša for a long time. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Jasna Lukić? [I had, turns out; she used to teach in the Women’s Studies Centre in Belgrade when I attended, 1997-98. – LP] She’s from Belgrade but lives in Budapest. She was married to a Croatian critic and they have a son and a daughter. She said to me, there is one person you really ought to translate and really ought to read. She had spotted her ages ago. And then MacLehose Press came to me. I have to say, that was quite frightening because Daša had this reputation of being very scary. And I knew that she had not liked…

OMG, yes, she had ~words~ about her first big English translation, Trieste. I listened to the podcast that Susan Curtis of Istros recorded with her.

It was not entirely fair…

Not exactly diplomatic…

You could say that. Which is good, because she cuts through everything. But anyway, I was really quite frightened. She insisted on a sample of 30 pages first. In the event, most of it was alright. And because her English was so fabulous, it was a real joy to work with her; she knew exactly the nuance she wanted.

I was reading EEG in the original, and thinking, who on earth can translate this. So many localisms, so many things only understood in the region… Then I looked at your translation and thought, Yes, this is basically the same thing. How is this possible? You got the texture of it just right.

Grreat, I’m delighted.

My great love, which you might have noticed, is Ivo Andrić. It’s completely fanciful, but I imagine I understand his way of thinking. Of course I don’t. But I really appreciate that irony, and the tolerance and the compassion that I find in his work and it totally lies with me. Whereas Dubravka and Daša are completely different personalities from me. So you have to work at it … your way into their head.

That’s so interesting. But you found Andrić simpatico.

Ivo Andric in 1961. Photo by Stevan Kragujevic

Totally, a real sort of soulmate. It’s ridiculous to say but that’s how I feel. So I was thrilled when the NYRB asked me to do Omer Paša Latas.

There was this article about his entire work in the NYRB magazine recently…

… a really good article about his historical fiction, yes.

 And today Bosniaks don’t really claim him because of the alleged pro-Serbian point of view… For the Serbs and the Croats he was probably too much of a Yugoslav… I wonder who can take pride in him today.

I was invited last year, because I’d just finished Omer Paša, to some Andrić event in Višegrad. And I just can’t imagine going there now that it’s not what it was [it is now a town in a highly Serbianized Republika Srpska, one of the three ethnic enclaves that form post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina – added by LP]. They’ve built something called Andrićgrad. I just couldn’t face it. I was terribly busy.

They can’t have him, as far as I’m concerned.

And I suspect he wouldn’t let himself be had by the nationalists, if he was still around. I’m glad the NYRB piece covers the basics, because I’d forgotten that he essentially went into an inner exile when the Nazis occupied Yugoslavia – he didn’t join the resistance exactly, but did not take part in any form of public life.

That’s when he wrote his novels. Because he was sitting in his flat in Belgrade and wouldn’t publish anything. He was really much more at home in short stories. Na Drini ćuprija is really a series of short stories – wonderfully linked – but Travnička hronika looks much more like a novel. He might never have written novels had he not been in that kind of enforced silence.

A lot of intellectuals just hunkered down when their countries fell under Nazi occupation. Inner exile. Sartre and Beauvoir essentially did the same, taught in provincial schools… But the Yugoslavs had to go all out.

I still can’t really accept it… the end of it.

What do you think of this. This has been bugging me. Our newly created countries now have all kinds of issues with corruption and weak civil society etc. That all unfortunately I think started during communism. It exploded exponentially after it, but communism started it. Though we like to remember it fondly now. And I think Daša did that a little too. Slightly idealized the previous system. But arbitrary rules, nepotism – it was all there already.

Yes. Definitely the country had become corrupt.  One of my favourite vignettes is a friend who has taught English, he’s in his eighties now, Damir Kalogjera at University of Zagreb, he said after the war, I used to sit in faculty meetings with all these communists around me, thinking oh god, they are idiots. And then suddenly after the war they were all nationalists. And I thought: No, I’m the idiot.

II

Any idea why there are so many great Croatian women writers? No other republic has that many.

No, that’s true.

I remember there being a lot of great Croatian non-fiction writers and journalists back in the late eighties, early nineties… people like Slavenka Drakulić…

(whispers) I don’t enjoy her work.

Interesting! I adored her early writing and her journalism, but her writing in English – I don’t recognize it at all.

I liked the first book, about her dialysis. That was very touching. And well written. But a publisher sent me something that was done two or three years ago… it was potentially interesting. I’m afraid it just didn’t come off.

Ah. That’s how I feel about her writing in English. The Balkan Express for ex? So slight. And so obviously written for Americans.

But back to Dubravka, who’s an example of a Croatian female writer you have in mind…

Was it you who translated Forsiranje romana reke, I can’t remember?

No that was Michael Henry Heim, her good friend and ours. And I thought his Fording the Stream of Consciousness was very clever. I did Museum of Unconditional Surrender. Museum I thought was really good. But she did become bitter, and I think that spoiled the next one, the novel about a teacher of Croatian in Amsterdam… just very bitter and negative. She had a hard time, learning Dutch seems to be really difficult. It was hard for her to be accepted. So she was always with the exiles. Things may have changed since then, though.

But your question was why are there so many women. I spend quite a lot of time trying to find women writers.

See, I suspected as much. I’m glad.

Really liked Svetlana Velmar Janković, for example.

What should I read?

 Lagum. I translated it long time ago, and called it Dungeon.

You also translated Olja Savićević Ivančević for Istros. She was a huge discovery for me.

Absolutely. She’s a delight in every way – and extremely sharp. And perceptive.

Olja Savicevic

And political. Nevertheless her touch is very light.

Comic, even. Farewell, Cowboy is comic, but under the surface kind of depressed.

The new one is very strange, Singer in the Night. It’s a very strange genre; she’s playing with genre, you don’t know where you are at the end.

Then there’s Vedrana Rudan, who’s extremely popular in Croatia, whom you’ve also translated.

[pause] I know. But somebody asked me to.

Ha, but such writers need to exist, I suppose. Punk, angry writers.

I suppose so. I did put together this book called The History of Central European Women’s Writing. I went hunting. [CH actually put together two books on the topic: that one, and this one – LP]

The thing about Croatia within Yugoslavia is, they had feminism. They had feminist publications and writers in late eighties.

They’d had it before. This is what I found when I was doing my history. They had had it between the wars. It’s just that after the Second World War when male communists took over, they just denied it. So they had to start all over again in 1970s. There’ve had some very interesting people in between the wars – women. You wouldn’t know this.

I did not know this! In the time of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes?

Yes. And not only in Croatia.

Ah. But then communism came and everybody became equal.

And yet men were still running things.

Zagreb had feminist press in 1980s, I guess that’s how long it took to reignite the fight. A magazine called Svijet, which changed my young life. Now all that is gone. Now they have a female president who’s very right wing. Do you go to Croatia now, do you go to any of the republics?

Very little. We have just a few old friends left. Damir Kalogjera in Zagreb and the Lešić family in Sarajevo. The Lešić family include our goddaughter who now has her own daughter. Zdenko Lešić and his wife were living on the 7th floor in Sarajevo with no glass in the windows. They could see people blown apart in front of them – unimaginable. Then their daughter went to Belgrade to study and they couldn’t really see her. His two brothers lived in Ilidza, one of them was killed by his next door neighbour. In the house they found the glasses. The neighbour came for a visit, they had their drinks together, and then he shot him. The other brother took his Muslim wife – they were Croatian and living in the wrong place, the Serbian part of Bosnia – he took his wife to Novi Sad, and then promptly had a heart attack and died. So Zdenko has not seen either on time to say goodbye. It was one thing after another, absolutely dreadful. They had decided they couldn’t get through another winter, that even death was better… I got my boss in London to say we could do a job share if he could get out and we knew somebody at British Council who helped. Anyway because he’d known all those dreadful people like Nikola Koljević who were all in charge of things, he could get out and they did. They came to London and Andrea came and that was wonderful.

And then they moved back after war and were very much welcome because they hadn’t sided with anyone, she’s Serbian, and he’s Croatian. Thoroughly decent human beings. He died last year sadly, in his eighties. But Andrea and Kaća, her mother, are still there.  They go to Mljet in the summer so our plan is to go there. My husband and I went secretly for her eightieth birthday, just appeared in Sarajevo.

That’s about it. I really don’t go very much because I just don’t know enough people in Belgrade any more. A lot of people I knew either left or they turned out to be people I didn’t understand at all. They had this nationalist button you could push, which it seemed incredibly easy to do.

Were you ever interested in people like Pekić or Crnjanski?

Both of them, yes. Pekić of course was in London so I knew him.

His wife worked as an architect. I’m not sure if he ever worked in England.

And they had a lovely daughter. He was a most interesting writer. I really didn’t like Besnilo – but all his other writing much more than that novel. Crnjanski, I love the early work, but once he came to London he became a bitter emigré… Roman o Londonu is unreadable, I think.

Seobe is absolutely worth reading.

Yes! Though there’s no point in trying to transfer it to English.

Somebody already did.

That’s right, but I don’t see how it could possibly work. I mean, the dismal thing about translating stuff from smaller languages is: the books just vanish. If you’re very lucky, they are published and then gone. People don’t read them. It hasn’t approved a bit – well, it’s improved a dot, people are more prone to read translations, but most people still don’t. And there are very few people to promote them. Exceptions are few, like the amazing Irish critic Eileen Battersby who did a huge amount to promote Daša – it’s such a tragedy that she’s gone.

All the time, when I was trying to translate, all those years when I was working in London, I was just acutely aware when in Yugoslavia that these writers are enormously important. They could not understand why that wasn’t carried over when they were translated. I mean – Kiš. Anybody should know Kiš.

He’s barely read now.

He was barely read in English when he was alive and very vigorous.

Have you read Mark Thompson’s Kiš biography, Birth Certificate? What an extraordinary book. And finally some Montenegro content. We’re the smallest and very few people have the faintest about Montenegro.

I’ve read it, I agree. Mark is a great guy. We had dinner with him and his Croatian wife recently, and Kiš’s widow Pascale Delpech. I used to see his first wife in Belgrade from time to time, Mirjana Miočinović.

Birth Certificate suggests that he was kind of veering between those two women till the very end. Fascinating guy, but tricky.

Weren’t they all?

Yes, what is with the Balkan macho…

No, women too. Daša was tricky. There were tricky women too.

Ha! Well, if you had asked Daša, she’d probably not have called herself a feminist. And if you look at the writers she invites into her own fiction, it’s mostly Mitteleuropa men.

She certainly lived life of a feminist.

Absolutely.
I’ve been trying to interest a Canadian translator in her book
Dying in Toronto, but no luck. It’s a bit older, from 1990s, and also it’s not very flattering to the host country. They really struggled in Canada.

She was not happy in Toronto.

Oxfordshire, October 2019

Piaf & Dietrich

Jayne Lewis and Louise Pitre as Dietrich and Piaf. Photo by Cyllla von Tiedemann

OMFG these two are a massive delight. And both are mezzos. And both are charismatic actresses in their fifties. Properly done casting.

Jayne Lewis and Lousie Pitre as Marlene Dietrich and Louise Pitre as Edith Piaf in Mirvish-produced Piaf/Dietrich: A Legendary Affair at the CAA Theatre until mid-December. According to this play – Erin Shields adapted the original, German-Austrian cabaret revue – they did have an affair which formed the basis of a life-long friendship. There is a bed scene, and it’s mAHvelous.

That’s my one musical theatre visit per year, done. I may return for another go, though. You just want to stay in the company of these two.

EDITED TO ADD:

Two different styles, can’t be more apart. And yet.

Candid Susanna Mälkki

Susanna Malkki with Ensemble Intercontemporaine. Photo by Joonasl/WikiCommons

“As a young cellist, I think I’ve always had a certain anti-careerist resistance… When I see that there are things that will please the professor, I make sure I don’t do those things. And I think I’ve always been conscious of all of my ‘wrong’ choices. And I’ve become aware that the professors really like teaching pretty young women, and so I wanted to be ugly. To see if they have anything [genuine] to say. I knew what I wanted and I did not want to be a mascot. So perhaps being an instrumentalist wasn’t the right path for me… but it did prepare me for the conducting path. When I finally took conducting classes, and somebody asked me, So how would you like this done, I thought, Finally! Yes, well, I’ll absolutely tell you what I want to do.”

Susanna Mälkki, in Les grands entretiens @ France Musique, led by Judith Chaine. Five 25-min episodes well worth your time.

Turandot by Bob Wilson: A Doll’s House

Photo by Michael Cooper. Tamara Wilson (foreground) as Turandot in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot, 2019. Conductor Carlo Rizzi; direction, design, and lighting concept by Robert Wilson; co-director Nicola Panzer; costume designer Jacques Reynaud; co-set designer Stephanie Engeln; co-lighting designer John Torres

There was a bright streak of joy running through Puccini’s Turandot as conceived by Bob Wilson, contrary to this opera’s reputation as a solemn, staid affair made up of a series of proclamations. Perhaps it’s because Wilson’s famous white makeup ‘masks’ reminded so much of Buster Keaton and the comedy figures of the silent film era? Or that the Ping-Pang-Pong, renamed Jim, Bob and Bill (Adrian Timpau, Julius Ahn, Joseph Hu), kept the beat of the production going by clowning and carnivaling in the commedia dell’arte manner around the rest of the very serious characters? Or was it due to the strength of singing by the two principals, Tamara Wilson (Turandot) and Sergey Skorokhodov (Calaf)?

Not the most persuasive of librettos (by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on the play by Carlo Gozzi) in the history of opera, this one – so the director is essential. The icy Chinese princess keeps saying no to suitors until one, Calaf, solves her riddles and is persistent enough for her to give in. Just because a woman absolutely HAS to die in a Puccini opera, there’s also the character of Liu who kind of follows Calaf around and sacrifices her life for him.  None of the interactions make remotest sense. Calaf meets Liu, and an old man who turns out is his long lost father (don’t @ me), at a well-attended public execution. After Calaf solves Turandot’s riddles, he… gives her the task of finding out his real name if she wants to get out of the marriage. (I said don’t @ me.) Anyway, fast forward, his persistence and his willingness to give his life for her turn Turandot and when Calaf tells her that his name is Captain Love, she doesn’t laugh him off the imperial court. The End.

Probably none of this struck Bob Wilson & team as serious dramatic propositions and they created a piece that is a visual feast, foremost. Instead of trying to diminish the static, tableau nature of the scenes, they emphasized it. Arms are not to be moved except in a very proscribed way in a Wilson production, and walking in Act 1 only used as accent on the expressed words, so in a couple of early sequences some  of the singers move back and forth in and out of the crowd on a cuckoo clock line. Powerful characters are wheeled into the tableaux by special contraptions – like the Emperor and early on Turandot herself. It is all beautifully apposite, including the occasional facial expressions of silent screams on this face or that, that are a pleasing mix of comic and horrified. Empire courts are highly ceremonial, and so is this production.

Later on, Turandot glides across the stage as if on a track. She is the only person on stage in a bold red dress amidst the cooler colours of gray, black, white and blue. The night he’s singing Nessun dorma, Calaf walks through some sort of stylized forest of thorn.

(l-r) Joseph Hu as Bill/Pong, Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf, Julius Ahn as Bob/Pang, Adrian Timpau as Jim/Ping in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper

Tamara Wilson and Sergey Skorokhodov give life to their characters chiefly by being very much vocally up to the task. The tenor has probably the best known operatic aria in the history of opera in “Nessun dorma”, and the soprano gets no such thing with “In questa reggia” but Tamara Wilson made her vocal lines sound easy and conversational. David Leigh (Timur), Adrian Thompson (Emperor) and Joyce El-Khoury (Liu) were all respectable in their roles. While dramatically effective and essential for the proceedings, the Timpau, Ahn, Hu trio were mixed vocally, with higher voices a bit strained higher up and the lower one more assured and distinct. Carlo Rizzi conducted the COC orchestra capably, with sensible tempi. Can this score be more visceral and engaging? One for Puccini completists to tell me.

The Wilson Turandot is extremely visually pleasing, and comes with unexpected joys, occasionally even humour. It is also without a strong pulse, alas – like a beautiful automaton. It felt like we were observing the happenings inside a doll’s house with elaborate, beautifully designed components, or rifling though a box of photographs: stunning though they may be, they are quite dead. The music is full of chinoiserie and the stylized, simplified, monochromatic imperial China costumes (designer Jacques Reynaud) riff freely and elegantly off that. There is much to enjoy in this Turandot, and in many way this is an all-ages show that children in your life may like too. But an exciting and visceral piece of theatre it is not. Feast for the eyes that will somehow manage to leave you hungry.

Tamara Wilson and Sergey Skorokhodov in Bob Wilson-directed Turandot (COC, 2019). Photo by Michael Cooper.

Interview: David McVicar

Stills from the documentary David McVicar’s Salome, A work in progress: Backstage in Covent Garden, ITV Productions, 2008.

“You are my only interview,” says the director David McVicar as he joins me in the boardroom that has been reserved for us for this purpose at the COC’s Front Street HQ, and I presume he implies “so make it good.” Fifty minutes later, it looks like both of us could very much go on, but the Rusalka rehearsal is about to start down the hallway and he is needed there.

In person, McVicar has a punk, no-bs attitude and the gruff, butch energy of a character from one of the fast-paced Patrice Chéreau movies. He fully invests himself in the conversation, though, and doesn’t hesitate to reveal his vulnerabilities. He often makes long pauses and here’s a tip for the next interviewer: there’s usually good stuff coming at the end of each.

Now, I was going to write that he is one of my favourite opera directors, but that is not quite it, because in his shtick, McVicar is unsurpassed. That shtick is human intimacy, the way we are with each other behind closed doors, and that entire ugly to sublime gamut of the human psyche. I’ve adored productions by Herheim, C. Alden, Albery, Kosky, Mitchell, but I don’t obsessively replay any bits of them the way I (and many opera lovers that I know) do with for ex. the McVicar Cesare, or Clemenza. While the Konzept school of opera directing is top-down, McVicar, in the best tradition of British liberalism, starts pointilistically, from the individual character, from the ground up.

There is a lot left that I still want to ask him. As somebody who’s refused the obligatory Bible in his Desert Island Discs episode on Radio 4, what does he make of the Christian eschatology at the end of The Rape of Lucretia? Does he really re-read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with regularity? Do film and TV influence him to any extent? That will have to wait for the next time. Here’s what we did manage to cover.

I.

What a lot of your productions have in common, I think…

What have you seen?

Let’s see… Enführung on DVD, Figaro in cinema, Giulio Cesare live and DVD… Some Donizetti thing on the Met in HD, but I don’t really care about that opera so didn’t really get much out of the production…

I probably didn’t like it either.

…I watched the Ariodante from Vienna online, and I thought was exceptionally coherent. It’s hard to make that opera cohere. Also seen The Rape of Lucretia. There’s probably more.

That’s a good number.

So what I often find in your productions is… this coherence. And depth of characterization. People behave as they would actually behave in life. How do you get to that point?

That’s probably because of my training as an actor. I didn’t go to university [Ed: He attended to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama] so my solution to directing an opera is to approach it as an actor, and my solution to directing a singer is: How would I play this. I’m weak on concept. Though there is always a conceptual foundation to everything I’m doing – there’s always a reason why things are happening. But the conceptual interpretation is not the overriding thing for me: it’s how the performers perform it, that’s the primary concern. How the performers invest in the character and tell the story, and is the story clear to the audience. That’s really important. Anything that I do that obfuscates the story, that gets in the way is something that I try to edit out. Because at the end of the day people are sitting in the theatre and watching the performance. It’s sort of immaterial whether I was there or not. The relationship is between the people on the stage and the audience.

I watched the documentary about the making of your Salome at Covent Garden, and took from it that every minute of a production is fussed over and thought through.

It is thought through. Even when I did a title like Il Trovatore, which I absolutely don’t like – I’ve learned a big lesson doing it: never take on something you don’t fundamentally believe in – but even with that, I thought, OK, we’re going to make this work somehow. We’re gonna damn try and make this coherent and hang together and make the audience believe in it.

That was the Met production?

Yes. But I don’t like Trovatore and I don’t think I did a good job. I don’t like it. It’s such a retrograde step, after Traviata and Rigoletto, to tell that kind of story in that kind of way. And also, you’ve got a tenor with absolutely zero psychological interest. Every time Manrico’s on stage, I’m like, that’s 12 minutes of my life I’m not getting back.

But you try. You latch on to other things, in Manrico’s case his mother and his lover and their reactions to him, to try to generate some interest.

I’ve read somewhere that you much prefer the eighteenth century to the nineteenth?

I feel really at home doing eighteenth-century opera, whether it’s Mozartian Classical period or whether it’s the baroque period. I find opera, especially Italian opera, in the first 40 years of the nineteenth century very problematic. The forms, that is. I’ve done some but I’m not doing another bel canto opera. I’ve done enough.

Ross…

I hate Rossini, oh my god! I listen to Rossini and think, How did you get away with this. You just repeat the same bar fifteen times? I’ve been asked to do Barber about four times and I’ve always said no.

What about I Capuletti?

I don’t want to do that.

But you really get the trouser role. In fact, your trouser roles, with Sarah Connolly in particular, I don’t know if you know this, have a huge lesbian fan base from all over the world. How do you know so well what happens between two women?

I can imagine it and I can guess. And because I’m coming into it with an actor’s background and I’m always observing people. And I’m fascinated by what I can observe and the interactions that people have in real life and things we’re not even conscious of and don’t even think about. Sometimes with an opera singer, you just have to make them aware of the simplest things to unlock them. Imagine this is a glass of wine [he’s pointing at the bottle of mineral water on the table between us]. How would I pass this glass of wine with intent? [Grabs the bottle and takes a sip inattentively and places it in front of me while carrying the conversation] …anyway we’re talking about this and that and I’m not even looking at you and you won’t notice I took a sip because we’re talking about something else. But if I want to do it with intent, I’d go like this [he makes direct eye contact and slowly draws the bottle toward me in a straight line]. It’s really good to ground singers and make them think about little details of life like that. And then you can get somebody to act if you can get them focused. Focused, and having thoughts.

Of course some people are lost cases and some are not interested and some of them don’t know what’s going on when they’re not singing. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what’s going on when it’s not their music.

Sarah Connolly said in an interview that she started really acting in opera since she started working with you. From your first Alcina, and her first Ruggiero. Do you remember that production?

Yes, of course. It was at the ENO in London.

How do you unlock people? Do you… antagonize them?

Noooooooo!

Some film directors do that.

Noooooo. I never have an antagonistic relationship with the singers. Never, there’s no point. You’ll never get anything out of them.

Sarah really has got it by the dress rehearsal. Early in the process she needs my help because I need to tease out the strands which are useful to her. Otherwise stuff which isn’t necessarily useful will distract her. And then something just happens to her. Normally I would do the piano dress before we move onto the stage and at that transfer point she locks it in the place, she gets it. And with the stage and the orchestra it just gets better and better.

She trusts me and I trust her. It’s a good relationship. There’s several ladies with whom I have a strong relationship of trust. We don’t have to say very much to each other when we’re working together. We hardly say things explicitly very much. Sarah follows my body language. She watches me a great deal. Sometimes when we’re doing an aria, I’ll be acting it for her, and she watches me and then she gets into her own body.

I remember watching parts of your La Clemenza from Aix-en-Provence where she’s a Byron-like Sesto and watching those long arias like Parto, parto, and how she and Vitellia interact and how she walks – and thinking, you filled every moment of that aria, nothing’s random or loose, everything holds together.

Well, yes, but Mozart filled every moment of it. I’m just paying attention to what Mozart wrote.

II.

I’ve noticed that your first instinct isn’t to transfer the opera you’re working on to another setting, or to present day.

I’ll do it if it tells the story.

Like, I don’t think we can do Agrippina in togas anymore. Yours isn’t in togas either.

You could do Agrippina in togas. I, Claudius is in togas so it can still work. I think the sense of humour in Agrippina is so extraordinarily modern to us, though. The premise of it is, just imagine a world where the Roman Empire never came to an end. Which, in a way, it never did. And what would that world be like. And would it be a lot like contemporary America.

You also transposed Salome, to a sort of Pasolinian Salò setting.

Yes, Salò was a big influence. To understand Salome, you have to understand the world in which she lives. I wanted to correct a misapprehension about Salome that she’s this monstrous virago – it’s actually a story about a woman who’s obsessed with virginity and with not being touch. It’s very important to her. All the characters in Salome are lusting after each other and wanting something from the other person, but no one ever obtains what they want. The fascist era helps to tell the story but it’s even more important that it’s all set in this sterile kitchen/bathroom area with sinks and urinals and tiles everywhere. I wanted to find a very sterile place to tell the story; I didn’t want to make it sensuous and lush, I wanted it quite brutal. It’s a place where people are washing all the time.

From David McVicar-directed Marriage of Figaro (Royal Opera House)

But your ROH Figaro stays in its own time. What intrigued me about the production is that it full-on centres the servants. We can see their living quarters well, and their labour is out in the open, not hidden away.

Figaro is about servants! It’s from their perspective. And that whole production is all about them. The aristocrats are almost interlopers into that world. That’s the way I saw it. It would be like if you do Downton Abbey but only from the perspective of the servants. But Figaro was interesting… I’ve done Figaro quite a few times now. I actually did a different production of it in Australia, and the battle is always getting the cast to understand master-servant relationships, because it’s something that they haven’t experienced and don’t understand. Getting the singers who sing Susanna to understand the sexual politics around her character. When she’s trapped in that room with the Count, I always say to them, what are your options. Where are you going to go, what are you  going to do, how are you going to manage this man who wants something from you. Your options are so limited. You can’t walk out, you can’t slap him, you can’t say no. And that unlocks the scene.

That opera, like Don Giovanni, needs to be in a period where the female characters’ options are more limited than they would be today because it makes their actions so much more understandable, and also dignifies them. Whenever I see a modern-dress Giovanni, and most of them today are, Zerlina makes no sense to me. I think it puts a misogynist gloss on her character. Whereas if she’s in a feudal society and an aristocrat comes to her wedding, he has the authority to send the bridegroom away and say I want to marry you. What are her options?

Would you agree that Figaro and Don Giovanni kinda have different politics? In Figaro, we’re all in this together against the tyrant; and in Don Giovanni, well: this newly emerging community will demand conformity for greater good.

There’s no question in Don Giovanni that society is going to change. But you never feel that Masetto and Leporello and Zerlina are going to be besties at the end of Giovanni. The societal order re-establishes itself after this lord of misrule has been consigned to hell. I think the sexual politics in Don Giovani is as intense as in Figaro, but has a different aspect to it. The female characters are fascinating.

Isn’t Don Giovanni the most interesting character of Don Giovanni?

Except that he doesn’t exist as a character. He only exists by the effect he has on other people. He doesn’t have a single moment of self-reflection. Which is interesting because that’s what psychopaths and sociopaths are like. Not a moment of self reflection is an interesting thing to play. There are few baritones who can do it – who can actually anchor it to anything in their lives. The baritone has to think: I can do anything and I can get away with it. And I am always pushing the boundaries of what I can get away with. But what if. What if retribution is real. What if those things which we’ve decided are not real turn out to be real. That’s why this opera bridges the Classical world and the Romantic world.

Goldoni’s Don Giovanni for example is the ultimate rational eighteenth century version coz he’s despatched by a bolt of lightening which may or may not be the judgment of God. And Mozart and Da Ponte explicitly gives us heavenly retribution, don’t they.

Yes but the ‘community’ kills Don Giovanni.

Does it though? Does it?

He wouldn’t conform. He would be free, and is punished for it.

When you say the community kills him, you mean the order that the others believe in that crushes him?

Yes, that’s it.

It’s the cosmic order that he subverts and that they want to cling to and that ultimately is the thing that crumbles Giovanni. It is a seminal Romantic piece.

Does it glamourize evil?

Of course it does.

That’s one of my favourite operas and the uncomfortable truth is that, like another favourite, L’Incoronazione, it totally glams up evil.

Of course. But L’Incoronazione is about life. Shits get away with it, don’t they.

Why do we cling to this – well, partly eighteenth-century – idea of what stage representation should be? That it should be morally enlightening, and that we should see evil punished, we should always get a happy end, when actually we don’t.

You know there’s a big fashion right now with productions of Carmen where she doesn’t die at the end. But if she doesn’t die, you’ve written politics out of it. We’re not celebrating that she’s dead; women are killed by their partners, and if she doesn’t die and walks away, then you’ve ripped all the meaning and all the political power out of Carmen. So get over yourselves.

Yes. Every few days, anywhere in the world that we want to look, a woman is killed by either a male partner, an ex or a male family member. Why suddenly decide to hide this?

We shouldn’t, and one of the great things about Carmen is the truthfulness of the depiction of that relationship. And how she fails to pick up the warning signals. From Flower Song even, after which she should be saying, ‘Right, so nice knowing you’, but she doesn’t, she chooses the other course. She decides to pursue the relationships. And he’s the biggest mistake of her life. I don’t think Carmen is about a “tragically doomed romantic passion”. It’s a piece about a relationship which was fucked up from the very beginning and goes horribly wrong. And he has this unusual attachment to the mother…

He also has a criminal record I think?

He’s a murderer.

Let’s stay with Mozart for a moment longer, because I wanted to ask you about Die Entführung. You didn’t update at all. You took it at face value, and made it work. Were you ever worried about a potential charge of ‘Orientalism’ and criticism of that kind?

Of course. But my version really wanted to bring out the Ottoman Empire side of the story. We really researched it. We were interested in that extraordinary clash of cultures, the Ottoman Empire beating at the doors of the Holy Roman Empire.

If you think that Entführung is an Arabian Nights-like fairly tale, which it too often can be, then I think that you are getting into a really tricky territory with cultural appropriation. If you say, no, this is set in a real political climate and a real place, these people’s lives are being defined from this clash of two opposing worldviews – it’s defining the story, the way these people behave towards each other – then it becomes a more serious piece.

We kept a lot of the dialogue. OK, it’s not Shakespeare, but you’ve got a lot of really great information and a lot of acting opportunity. And certainly the relationship between Konstanze and Bassa has so many more colours.

You put the negotiation scene in the bedroom.

I put “Martern aller Arten” in the bedroom. What does that aria mean? What does the extremity of the coloratura writing mean? So I had to put her in a situation where every single line of that coloratura is imbued with meaning. It’s a situation of so much danger but also in a situation of mutual attraction which can hardly be contained – my goodness, I’ll never forget rehearsing that for the first time. Everyone in the room was alert. And it helped that the actor who played the Bassa had learned all her music. It was a duet, he knew everything that she was going to sing to him. He’s as much part of the music as she is.

Then there’s the tense scene between Blonde and Osmin. In the production, both Osmin and Bassa are honourable characters in that they don’t force themselves on the women, but ask for consent and ultimately back off when they don’t get it. Where were Blonde and Osmin having a fight, in the kitchen was it?

I thought, what is Blonde doing in a crisis? She bakes. It’s a crisis because she’s been given as a slave to this man who wants to have sex with her, and how will she keep him at bay? She’s angry when Pedrillo questions her fidelity. That’s their domestic situation: Osmin tries something, and she has to wreck things to get him off her. She has to work so hard and be assertive, and hurt his feelings to keep him at bay. It was important to show how she manipulates him – it’s important for her character, and for Osmin’s, to show how he’s frustrated in his desire. There’s nothing more interesting than watching a big scary macho man who finds himself in a relationship with a woman who treats him like a kid. And he accepts that.

Tobias Kehrer and Mari Eriksmoen in the Serail (2015). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

III.

Your Vienna Staatsoper debut was last year in Ariodante?

Ariodante for me is a piece about how easy it is for the forces of chaos to subvert society if we take our eyes off the ball. And how deceitful those forces will be and how someone like Polinesso can obtain so much power based on lies. He’s becoming the de facto ruler of Scotland.

What was new about your Ariodante is how strong you made the character. Usually he’s a hapless young man mindlessly following where other people’s action takes him; somehow in this Vienna production he is assertive.

But his flaw is Othello’s flaw. That’s what sends him off deep end. He should learn how to trust. He should never have doubted Ginevra in the first place. And Dalinda is fascinating – what a dark little character. All of her crazy coloratura is there for a reason. Her realization that this man that she’s obsessed with doesn’t give a shit about her. And the revenge that she then takes. It’s… They’re all real to me. All the characters in all the operas – well, most of them; some of them, like Manrico, are a lost cause. But they’re very real to me. In opera plots you find yourself in extraordinary situations; but then just think, if I was in that extraordinary situation, how would I behave, what would be my objective, how would I get out of it.

The Glyndebourne Cesare is today the best know and most popular Cesare that exists. So the directors pretty much save the operatic works with productions that strongly resonate in their own era. They carry the opera over, past our lifetimes, like a relay.

Oh but Cesare‘s been saved before. There have been productions… John Copley’s now…

Productions with staying power, though?

John Copley’s now looks very outdated, okay, but at the time it was extraordinary. Because he treated it seriously. He did it in a certain style, he drew on the paintings of Tiepolo for the visual world, and it’s all very statuesque – it’s a serious piece of work.

Then Peter Sellars comes along and does his version. With Cesar that’s a Reagan-esque figure.

I’ve never seen that one. There have been some other ones lately, like the Salzburg one with Bartoli, but I’m not sure that we will treat them as reference pieces in 10 years.

Our version is about colonialism, and about the British Empire. It was my idea to do it. Gus Christie’s dad George, who was running things at that point, told me [assumes posh British baritone] I’ve got to plan the season, David, what’d you want to do? I said, let’s do Julius Cesar, please. And some time passes and next time we meet he says: I’ve spoken to Bill Christie about it and… yeah. Let’s do it.

I also had casting control over that one; Bill was quite happy for me to take care of it. And then the final thing was, at the last second, Dani (Ed: Danielle de Niese) came. We had somebody else but she had to drop out due to surgery and 10 days before we were due to start we got Dani. And I didn’t know anything about her. Absolutely nothing, and was like, Fingers crossed.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s been revived various places, Chicago…

…and at the Met, which I wasn’t very happy with. The place is just too big.

And a countertenor sang it, alas.

Yeah, he was good. [whispers] But Sarah was… magnificent.

 OMFG where to start.

She is magnificent in it. It’s a career-defining role for her. And you never question it – it’s a thing of beauty, you absolutely accept that it doesn’t matter that it is a woman playing a man.

Welllll… We know there’s a female body there. (My ilk certainly does.)

Yes we know there’s a female body there but it’s the way she plays it. She believes that she is that man. And she carries it off.

I was passionate about Giulio Cesare from the word go, I just love it so much. And I’ve seen that our production has been imitated — for example in how far you can take the choreography in opera productions. And I’ve seen productions that are just aria after aria after aria. And productions where Cleopatra’s scenes are just plain tacky. But somehow we found the right way, we pulled it off. We did it, somehow.

I know you have to go, so this will be my last question. What the everlasting tuck is happening with the UK?

I moved back from London to Scotland last year because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Brexit ripped the lid off Pandora’s Box and things have emerged that we’ll never to be able to get back in there. One of the ugliest things was that English nationalism found a cause and a voice. And it’s a very ugly thing. And what the Leavers understood, and us Remainers it took a while to understand, is that this was an existential vote about identity. It’s now clear that that’s what it was about. The country is so split and the atmosphere is so hostile… and now we have our very own pound store Trump in Boris Johnson, who is learning the lessons of his master well. Is that going to play well in Britain, we won’t find out till the general election, but it’s scary.

Is there going to be another independence vote for Scotland?

There’ll have to be. What’s also coming out loud and clear is the total disregard for other parts of the union from the English parliament. Ian Blackford, who’s one of the SNP representatives at Westminster, every time he stands up to make what are actually intelligent speeches, the Tory backbenchers shout Go back home, Go back home. That’s the rhetoric that Trump’s using. They should be ashamed of themselves. They’re the Conservative and Unionist party and they should be listening to our voices and the voices of Northern Ireland which is not just their devilish friends, the DUP. And this whole process has made it abundantly clear that in the thinking of Westminster Parliament, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are colonies. I didn’t live in Scotland when the last referendum happened so I didn’t vote because I didn’t feel I should. Now I do live there and would vote for independence. I moved back to Glasgow for some sanity. It’s the best thing I ever did.

Rusalka opens at the COC on October 12th. Torontonians can watch several David McVicar productions, including Cesare, Troyens and the Meistersinger, on Medici.tv for free by logging on with a Toronto Public Library card via tpl.ca/medici.