Anne Sofie von Otter recital in Toronto

Anne Sofie von Otter recital in Toronto

Anne Sofie von Otter and Brad Mehldau at the Koerner Hall in Toronto, February 25 2011

It all started inauspiciously. I arrived to the Koerner Hall lobby to discover that it was mobbed by the straight couples de certain age. There were only about ten people under 55 present, and they too were middle-class straight couples. I wandered about desperately, staring at people for signs of peculiarity, opera nerddom, or that special kind of anguish one has to contain before the performance by one’s diva assoluta. None of that. People were holding their wine glasses, talking about their day. What obliviousness, what gall, I thought. So in I went to find my most excellent, sixth row seat.

It opened with Grieg’s Med en vannlilje, with the piano score that captures the swirls of water currents. I’ve heard it on CD countless times before, but her live version was even more precise and intense. From the moment Otter walked to the stage she was there 100 percent in every note she sang and every movement she made — a gentle relentless volcano of energy and joy. At the intermission I’ve heard many people telling to their husbands that the tears started rolling from the very first Lied, but what I had to keep in check was the stream of hysterical giggle. How it began, so it continued. Every word in every Lied sung was full of meaning and alchemized for us into pure gold. There’s nothing I could add here that hasn’t been said in all the uniformly gushing reviews published during this North American tour. I want to tell you about something else.

The way she caresses the piano behind her while singing. Sometimes as if searching for temporary support in a moment of difficulty. Sometimes as if surrendering. Sometimes leisurely, as if to check if the elephant was still there, to pat it for good behaviour.

The dancing. She sang with her whole body, especially visible in the second part of the evening (you can’t really go wild during the Lieder, even if you’re dying to). The little hops and sudden stomps, the hip sways, the walkabouts, the elbow work, the walking on tiptoes, the playing with her necklace, and the finger-combing out of loose hairs from her ‘do.

The way she withdraws during the masterful piano solos. She’d settle in the curvature of the piano, close her eyes, and listen. The subtle changes of keys and mood you could also read in her face.

The usual gender transgressing business. There was the expected high percentage of the Lieder and pop songs sung to a woman this evening too. One song she sang both as Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire (Kern’s ‘I won’t dance’). There was the Maxence song, about going round the world yearning to find the woman of one’s dreams. The Sara Teasdale songs that Brad Mehldau composed the music for appear traditionalist on paper, but don’t be deceived. ‘Because’, for example, is a song in which a woman invites her lover to break both her ‘maidenhood’ and her spirit. Imagine a Scandinavian Amazon Feminist Divinity singing “break me and I’ll call you Master”, to grave and beautiful music, intelligent and despairing lyrics, but delivered with the discreet Otterian detachment and twinkle in the eye? Imagine the White Queen of Narnia coming down to you and saying, this is how you can conquer me if you dare? It’s scarier than Erika in The Piano Teacher (played by Isabelle Huppert in the film version) writing down her elaborate fantasies for her boy. This is much less manageable than what in the M/S circles they call the bossy masochist.

Oh and speaking of smut. The Lieder can be one helluva smutty business, and we’ve witnessed that again. They’re all about ‘heavenly satisfaction’ and ‘heaving busoms’ and some synesthesia of the senses or other. The pop section was actually less sexual than the first part, I realized. But all this to say: why didn’t anybody tell me how  flirty Otter is on stage? I think she managed to make every single person in the KH think she’s singing only for her/him and is going through all this trouble just so she could seduce her/him. (This is what everybody looks in a singer, innit.)

Plus, she knows exactly how great she looks. It’s absolutely awe-inducing, the ease with which she carries herself.

There were several standing ovations, and the two encores, and then we finally lined up for the signing. When they came out I realized I should have handed the chrysanthemums in the colours of her dress (lilac and purple variations) during the curtain call, because of course she had changed in the meantime, to a red sweater, a pair of black pants and the sneakers. I told my queue mate that Damn it, that wasn’t part of the plan, and he told me she’s actually lovelier in this setup. Pfft. Not the point at all, mate. And  there are no gradations of loveliness in von O, I’ll have you know. (I didn’t say that. I still had the giggles to worry about.)

She came out carrying a pint of ale, so I had to strike that off the list of things to say (Oh, by the way, can I get you a glass of something?) Before she took her chair, she made a kind of Nixonian, arms up in the air salute to the crowd. She had playfulness of a 6-year-old girl, and the hair clips to match.

So anyhoo, when the queue started moving really fast, I got concerned. How quickly is she dispatching people if my turn is about to come up this fast? When the queue mate’s turn came (they were yet another straight couple nearing sixties), the man took some time telling Otter a story in which the words “the Niagara escarpment” appeared. Was he offering his two cents to the question she invited us earlier on the stage to answer, what Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Michael from mountains’ is actually about? Or was it something else? She listened without interrupting and said at the end “That is a useful story.”

Finally I inched forward. I need to describe the Otter demeanour in this context. In contrast to the Otter on stage, she is rather guarded in this kind of situation, and of very few words. (No wonder: probably sat through a thousand signings where people come up to her with all kinds of requests and stories.) She doesn’t do the woman gendered interlocutor thing, with endless reinforcement, encouragement, smiles, the drawing out of the other… She has the air of the not easily impressed, but not the kind that annoys or causes rebellion. It’s the kind that makes you want to try even harder. She has that perfectionist “Is that all you got? I’m sure you can do better than that” signal. If you’re already mad about Otter, this will make you go even more batty.

Flowers delivered with “These are for you,” I begin what I thought was going to be a solid brief speech on how divine her musicianship is with “You have enriched my life tremendously… in so many ways…” and then I can’t remember any other word that exists in English. Not one.

Otter [no smile, no surprise, she did hear it countless times before]: Thank you.

Me: Um… can you sign these for me? [I produce the booklet from the L’incoronazione di Poppea DVD] This is one of my favourite ten Otter recordings.

[She says nothing, but she’s looking at the booklet with great interest. She’s flipping the pages.]

One of my favourite twenty Otter recordings, more accurately…

[this silly joke falls flat, but she is still absorbed by the booklet]

Otter: …no, yes, it’s true, it’s a wonderful recording… [leafing through]

You’ve never seen this booklet before? I smile. I am unnaturally, maniacally cheerful.

…actually, no…

[so it turns out she never had this DVD book in her hands before, and something about it intrigued her]

Otter: Here? Or here?

Oh you can sign anywhere. That’s great… and um, if you can sign my tie?

Oh right, yes, I can… let me try… this way maybe… [she felt bad for writing on the cloth – was probably close to asking me if I’m sure, but then just went along with it. At this point I am noticing that the entire queue and the hangers-on were observing the scene]

Then silence again, she looks at me with those blue noncommittal bossy eyes and the stealth (because you can’t hang on to it, it’s never hang-on-able) Otter smile.

Er… Please come again soon. And stay longer.

Thank you. [Not “we will” or “I will” or “I’ll see what can be done”]

And since I know you cycle, this is for the next time, when you must stay longer: the cycling map of Toronto. Here it is.

[The ever so slight, imperceptible rise in the eyebrows.] Oh, thank you.

And do come again.


…and I’m off. The person behind me already edging their way in.

I walked home in -10C. The hysteric cheerfulness did not subside until about 2am, and it returned at 4am, while I was trying – in vain — to move from one sleep cycle to another.

The unsung hero of the night, though: Brad Mehldau. Astounding piano solos, and so much mensch-itude in his readiness to take the passenger’s seat when in Otter’s musical or personal company. He looked the way I felt: like he was in a total daze from when he entered the stage, during the concert, and after, while sitting by her side and smilingly observing the parade of the Otter-crazed humanity. The bottle of maple syrup which I didn’t dare give Otter – in my bag because I wanted to give her something more practical than the flowers, then left there because I decided the idea was so lame that it would cause her eyebrows to rise perceptibly – should have gone to him, with a sloppy kiss on the cheek. Mensch, über-musician, and my fellow Gen-Xer and North American, your presence meant a lot, although I was too out of it to be able to tell you that.

Given that none of the above was conducive to my calmly figuring out the camera settings required for this shooting environment, I hope you can forgive if these snapshots are not of the most limpid kind:


46 thoughts on “Anne Sofie von Otter recital in Toronto

  1. Glorious! Glorious glorious glorious. (Also, I am sorry to hear that about the audience; I had a similar experience at Carnegie Hall and was similarly confused.) I’m so glad the concert was a joy. The review is too. Love the dancing. Also… “The Lieder can be one helluva smutty business” … YES. Can you be quoted on that? Because it is true. I keep wanting to say to people I tell about opera/lieder: “No, I don’t have a dirty mind, I swear; you just weren’t paying attention because you expected it to be Culture, and therefore terribly proper.”

      1. Hehehe. There’s the most excellent scene in Iris Mudoch’s The Black Prince. The main character is sitting in the audience at the Covent Garden listening to the overture, thinking, what kind of a porn creation is this…?

      2. A-hem, yes indeed. Have you read Jessica Duchen’s Songs of Triumphant Love, Stray? I think it’s a beautiful novel, and one of the best bits is a full-page description of the Rosenkavalier overture as perceived by a character who is NOT conditioned to think of opera as proper. It’s great. Maybe Duchen got idea from Murdoch! (I haven’t read The Black Prince… more material for my DTO reading list.)

      3. Oh it’s the same Jessica Duchen of the blogosphere? I just subscribed to her blog in my WP.

        This is how my library describes the novel (possibly from the publisher-provided description):

        “While the celebrated opera singer Terri Ivory is in hospital, facing what could be the end of her career, her daughter Julie stumbles upon a long buried secret that forces her to question her past and her place in her mother’s affection. In their cracked and empty house that no longer seems like a home, mother and daughter try to keep their closeness to each other and to the men they love: damaged Teo, whose passion for Terri borders on the self destructive, and Julie’s first love Alistair who fails to predict the consequences of his decision to join the army. When calamity strikes, all four must make vital choices to find their way forward. Can love and music heal when medicine cannot? And are there some secrets that should never be shared?”

      4. It is the same Jessica Duchen! And yes, that’s the publisher’s blurb… the book itself is far less soupy, in my opinion. Characters are sharply drawn and compassionately observed, and there’s plenty of sensual prose about e.g. rain, a silk dress, Paris at night, an instrument case, trees. Not all of those together. And one of the passages I found most moving involved choosing a carton of orange juice, of all things. There are descriptions of the Liebestod too. Hee.

      5. Hmmm, like that slight scent of Spring in the air, this opera-in-literature thing hints at the possibility of a new project. Might get poor George Eliot off the back-burner at last. Thanks for the signposts.

      6. Not sure what this is yet, but the fact of four literary references to Rosenkavalier raises an interesting question or two, and makes me wonder what else is out there in that particular vein.

        In the broader context, it was in a graduate Poetics class a few years back where I realized a working knowledge of opera is a really useful thing to have.

  2. this was soo fun to read, soo descriptive!! should we be surprised about age + gender distribution of the audience? seems like the white-shirt crowd is so small and spread out.
    and i was gonna ask how far she had to reach over to sign that tie. didn’t realize you had it ON while she was signing. the other hand must have landed somewhere to keep the tie from moving?

  3. “And there are no gradations of loveliness in von O, I’ll have you know.”

    LOL. You’re right!

    The cycling map is such a sweet detail, that’s true love! I’m so happy you’ve so much enjoyed the concert, thank you very much for your inspiring enthusiasm.


    Fer (@OperaTweets)

  4. *So* glad you enjoyed it that much!
    As mentioned above: there is sooo much in these Lieder texts:

    “Und wer’s nicht singt, dem klingt es
    Im Herzen vor lauter Freud’!“

    ’And she who does not sing it,
    her heart rings with it in sheer joy!’ 😉

    (Brahms, „Juchhe“!)

  5. I so wish to have been there too; not only for being able to witness von Otter’s awesomeness, but also for being able to pat your hand in a comforting way. I am also VERY confused most of the time when I attend opera performances, concerts and recitals. I mostly try to go there just on time to avoid more contact than necessary with others beforehand — their everyday mood freaks me out.
    Your cycling map of Toronto has been a lovely idea. When meeting your diva you are BOUND to behave so others frown at it. I never cared 😉 Surely von Otter will remember your all to brief encounter.

  6. Thank you so much for this beautifully crafted, epic tale and the splendid — and swoon-inducing — descriptions of the endless Otterian delights.

    On a less bombastic note: I’m so happy that you had such a splendid time. Thanks for sharing.

  7. *oh y’all move me to tears*

    YES I WAS WEARING IT! I had to bend really low and closer to her. She was sitting at the table and we were all standing. That was one of the reasons I wanted her to sign it, because some of the space between will diminish, and it’ll be all very legit.

    What I forgot to do in my total crazedness was to look up. We all looked down to see how she’ll figure out the signing, and if I looked up I’d probably would have seen her forehead 3-5 cm from mine.

    And probably died promptly, so that’s just as well.

    @Lucia, yes: people have no idea how much sex and desire there is in the seemingly prim Lieder (and opera is nothing but)!

    @Fer: That cycling map was supposed to come with a punch line (“…and when you see our map, you can be even more smug about Stockholm”) but none of my punch lines showed up for duty.

    After I moved from the table, I immediately remembered tons of other stuff I should have asked her (“Is it true that you’re re-recording Les nuits d’été with Minkowski this year”, “How about you and Capella Mediterranea performing your April program in this hall that you like so much?” “Can your agency create a website for you that would have the list of coming performances?” “What kind of material was Baba the Turk’s extension at the Theatre an der Wien two years ago made of? Some Austrian dailies said plastic, some rubber. Can’t be plastic, can it?”)

    @thadieu, yes, maybe that’s why when we (all of us here who love opera a little too madly and viscerally) should make ourselves more visible when we go out.

    Oh and one more thing: the coughers were out in full force. I had to tweet on my cell phone at the intermission that they should all be put before a firing squad. They don’t wait for the suitable moment, they just cough on no matter what’s going on. It was ever worse than usual. Infuriating.

  8. @ Lankin – Hmmmm: Bound …. with a tie?! ;-). Well, anyway I totally agree DtO for sure made quite a lasting impression on her diva.
    @DtO – and re the agency: she just changed her management, but it’s not the agencies being in charge of the artists’ websites. It’s the artists themselves, so another question for your list when she signs your other tie 😉 .

  9. Chef, yes, I heard about Shirley Thomson leaving the IMG Artists, so she did pull all her artists with her as it was expected? So now Shirley T has her own agency, or what is the situation?

    Of course, the website depends on how publicity-conscious the singer is. But I can’t open with, “Yknow you really should do something about your website.” It’s better if I blame somebody else for its state. I was nowhere near asking coherent questions, though.

    Lank, Chef, :). Hope not too lasting. I was not at my least foolish, but that’s what divas do to us. I’m rather proud of that foolishness.

  10. As far as I know Shirley Thomson is still with IMG but Otter isn’t. She changed over to another very renowned agency.
    Interesting news you mention, though I don’t think everybody will be too pleased to read this in the www.

  11. @ Bergerchef… Hmmm I suppose the word as such sounds naughteee… Well, put the tie to whatever use seems appropriate I’d say. For gagging next-chair neighbors though it would be a waste I feel. Once it was really personal, when the person in the seat next to me coughed — coughed! — exactly the moment when Kundry sang the “ich lachte!”… And not some “Oh my God I am so sorry” half stifled kind of cough but the everyday “hm? What’s your problem, it’s only an opera…” sort.
    Bound…. Bound…. good cue…

    1. Might we comfort ourselves with speculation that coughing at THAT moment might carry some sort of eternal curse of its own? (If they survive their neighbors first, that is.)

  12. Beautiful story, thanks so much for sharing it in such detail. The few times I have waited around, excited as a puppy to meet my singing idol I also found myself tongue tied and feeling seriously unworthy of taking up the precious air surrounding them. Once, when much younger, I asked a very famous American soprano if she had any advice for a young, aspiring opera singer. I was so full of hope and admiration, eager for her response. Well, it went something along the lines of “Haven’t you read my book?” Needless to say I wanted to hit her with it.

  13. The biggest jerk I encountered concerning that was Pinchas Zukerman. I went to meet him –I was about 14 at the time, shaky and all — at the Meistersingerhalle in Nürnberg, and asked him for an autograph, saying something stupid (of course) like, “Er I really hope this biro works…” innerly dying of shame already. His reply was a dry “Pray to God it works.” I was close to telling him to keep it. The biro AND the autograph. It was not the remark as such, but the typically American way in which the “God” was broadened like in AMAGAAAAAD and the way his correpetitor giggled. Yes, he giggled — I haven’t forgotten.
    Whenever I have to get into a character similar to that type for writing, it helps to imagine Zukerman, sitting back in his chair, legs slightly apart, voicing those lines with this complacent look on his face — ;). He was kind of exemplaric.

    Oh to get back to kinkiness, as it seems to be appreciated, surprisingly — the expression “bossy masochist” was new to me 😀 For myself I classify a personality like that as a “sadistic uke” at times. Nasty to get along with indeed 😉

  14. I know… he deliberately said in in that specific tone of voice. Hehe. I think yes, of course he was teasing me, but back then, this was totally overtasking my tender heart, and he enjoyed it — his pianist even more 😛

  15. Oh the opera dyke at work is a wonderous thing to behold. I imagine being Swedish it would take quite a lot to non-plus ASvO… but that tie might just have done it. Still I like the fact that the white shirt equivalent of throwing your underwear at Elvis is a little more ‘restrained’ 😉

    PS M/S I am afraid throws up rather different images for us Brits, hence here it is usually S/M – think less sub and dom more big knickers and twinsets (although on second thoughts, perhaps just a different shade of kink ;))

  16. Oh dear, I think you’re right. M/S is Marks & Spencer, innit? Our Leather Daddy of Heavenly Indulgence, Michel Foucault, must be turning in his grave at my faux pas and Gayle Rubin piercing my woodoo doll right now. (Except, actually, that wouldn’t be considered punishment at all, so… nevermind.)

    But I’ve thought about underwear in the Elvis context a lot lately, yes.

  17. I have always rather imagined Foucault quite enjoyed picking up a fresh set of pyjamas and a bottle of best British marmalade for le weekend at M&S. I mean apart from the frisson of linguistic co-incidence, I am sure there would have been a treatise brewing somewhere… “Discourses on the Department S(t)ore: proposing a poetics of perversion, power and the pursuit of the perfect pyjama”.

  18. I love this mix-up. In German it is called SM, so it is always a font of joy that there is a recording technique called M-S. Mid and Sides that is. A pro — in mono the sides just disappear. For this technique, the signal used for the sides is split in two, one half needs to be phase-inversed on top of that. So, for stubborn old mixing consoles where you cannot just assign it, you use a split with a phase inversion on one side. This split (imagine a vaguely Y-shaped cable) is called MS-Peitsche (MS-whip.) Always a font of joy to call it SM-Peitsche, stressing the fact that it is yours ONLY and that everyone trying to nick it will get spanked instead with it.
    Oh, and in World of Warcraft, MS is “mortal strike.” 😀

  19. Sorry I was unclear and hyped your German ;-p .
    That link says they will show it again on Sunday, March 27th at 11:30 CES(!)T, so: be patient and buy another tie ;-).

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