Interview: Celia Hawkesworth

To visit Celia Hawkesworth, I took a Chiltern Lines train from London’s Marylebone Station to a village 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 biggest 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 it, 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 Kalodjera 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 Kalodjera 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.

No, 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.

Conversations about Canada: John Doyle

Why, look at the time!

Next month, it will be 20 years since I first moved to Canada. This anniversary got me thinking… about many things. And I decided to talk to people, Canadians old and new, and long-time Canadian residents, about this country that I feel I know less now than I thought I did a decade ago. I have been trying to fend off a feeling that I belong less to it now than years ago, when I had just moved to Toronto from Nova Scotia. Everything seemed possible back then. Now, twenty years later, perhaps I have hit enough walls to start noticing them and a different map of the possible territory of life here begins to take shape.

But these conversations are meant to be more about other people – and how they live here and how they make sense of Canada.

My first interlocutor is TV critic and author John Doyle, who grew up in Ireland and moved to Canada by the same method as I (an MA scholarship). Some of the topics that we cover:

– immigration
– Canadian TV
– whether Canadians should be less nice and more raucous
– whether we are now practically an American cultural province
– privatized vs public medicare (I had no idea that Ireland switched from latter to former)
– if literary publishers today expect the novel to be more like TV
– whether the CBC cancels all the best dramas, and
– how is it possible that Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming services manage to avoid sales tax.

Listen here: https://soundcloud.com/lperovic/johndoyle (c. 45min)

September matters

The Flowers: Sophia Di Martino (Amy), Julian Barratt (Maurice), Olivia Colman (Deborah) and Daniel Rigby (Donald)

How accurate are the arts about mental health issues? I got thinking about this while working on the September piece for the Wholenote, which is an interview with soprano Monica Whicher about the concert series organized each year at the U of T during the Suicide Prevention Week. It’s a good occasion to talk about mental health issues in university context, and remind people what services there are for those who may need them. In the article, I leave the university grounds and look at the availability of talk therapy for general population. It’s not great.

There was no room for this sidebar, so here it is. Some recent creations and two old ones, which approach mental health problems in intelligent ways:

Flowers (British TV Series, 2016-2018). The two-season Channel 4 / Netflix series looks inside a family in which the father is struggling with depression and – in the following season – the young daughter with bipolar disorder. Somehow it manages to be a comedy while also being devastating. Stars Olivia Colman and Harriet Walter, but entire cast is brilliant.

Maria Bamford’s stand-up. Bamford has been very open about her own life with mental illness, both in her standup and in media interviews. It’s not always easy to watch her – she is not a polished communicator always in control, she is visibly struggling but just about functioning while also creating smart and funny material and living her life and staying in a relationship. Respect.

Imagine Me Gone, a 2016 novel by Adam Haslett. Story of a family which loses one member to suicide, and another, gradually, to a multifaceted, elusive psychological distress which often appears as… being extremely good and alert to injustices in the world. All the characters are drawn out in subtle detail, as are their sufferings and joys. At the end, the family reconstitutes after the losses as best they can.

Virginia Woolf – the 1926 essay on ‘On Being Ill’ and the 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, which has a character trying to live with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. His experience of the city of London and of being in the world in the 1920s after the Great War is entirely different from those that the central, well-off characters of the novel have, including the lovely and yet thoroughly oblivious Mrs. Dalloway herself.

Homer’s Iliad, any translation: the section The Grief of Achilles and the New Armour Made Him by Vulcan. As we’ve known at least since Homer, the problem with the dead is that they never die.

Dead Equal, a new opera about women in combat

If you happen to be anywhere near Scotland this summer, make sure you check out the Edinburgh Fringe, the probably globally best known r&d festival of theatrical expression which usually doesn’t have much opera on offer. This year, however, one operatic indie, in part crowd-funded and entirely written, composed and directed by women, caught my eye: a chamber opera about Flora Sandes, the British volunteer combatant who donned the trouser and joined Serbian Army at the start of World War I, and her contemporary Emily Simmonds who travelled to the Balkan front as a nurse. In the second act, the story moves to our era and follows British female soldiers who come to Afghanistan as medics and tackles the questions around women’s front-line participation (finally officially allowed by the British Army in 2016, but in effect present in some form or other since 1999), unit cohesion in heterosocial context, soldier attachment, why choose a life of professional warfare etc. There is a Canadian connection: soprano Teiya Kasahara sings the role of Flora Sandes in the Edinburgh production and is happily Instagramming about the experience, if you’re on there (the odd tweet appears too).

I seriously hope that after Edinburgh this will be revived somewhere in the UK, which will increase the chance of my crossing its path. The Brits can catch it on August 13-15 and 20-25. Dead Equal is written by Lila Palmer, composed by Rose Miranda Hall and directed by Miranda Cromwell.

A brilliant BBC backgrounder on possible reasons why Sandes is still fairly unknown by the Britons is worth a read.

And the excellent Margaret MacMillan’s Reith Lectures on the changing nature of war and the warrior are still up. Women war historians are pretty much as few as women warriors.

Flora Sandes with Serbian soldiers

Das Lied for the final lap of the TSMF

Gemma New (Fred Stucker Photography)

The TSMF performance of Das Lied von der Erde in the Schoenberg/Riehn reduction was a mixed bag last night, with orchestral side coming through and the vocal one much less so. The usually very capable mezzo Rihab Chaieb appeared a fish out of water in the Mahler. There was no requisite volume or colour in mid and lower ranges, and what in the critics’ parlance is known as the ‘purity of tone’ was MIA. The text was mangled on occasion. Whose bright idea was it to cast her for Das Lied, one wonders – the repertoire which she may, who knows, end up singing well some time, but for which she is at present not ready.

Young tenor Mario Bahg showed more promise, but he had much much less to do in his three short songs. Short but dastardly – with the chiroscuro of the highs and lows that need to appear seamless, logical and easy to do. Maybe one day.

All the drama of the Abschied therefore had to be provided by the chamber-size orchestra comprised of the TSO principals and non-TSO freelancers under Gemma New’s baton (the first piece in the program, Mozart Violin Concerto 5 with Jonathan Crow, was largely played by the young TSMF Academy fellows). In this they succeeded, with Keith Hamm (viola), Emmanuelle Bealieu-Bergeron (cello), Kelly Zumba (flute), Michael Sweeney (bassoon), Sarah Jeffrey (oboe) and Jonathan Crow as first violin in particular leading the charge. The work the reduced orchestra is expected to do is the work of an entire Mahlerian orchestra, but nothing seemed to be lacking last night, all the solos and accents in the right places. Watching Gemma New conduct was watching an extremely committed, attuned, energetic musical interpreter in action. She’s all-in in Mahler. I can already see more trips to Hamilton on my agenda next season.