Would the much too short and music-filled life of the late cellist Jacqueline Du Pré make for a good opera? Yes, it turns out: this Wednesday, Feb 19th, Tapestry presented Jacqueline, a chamber biopic opera composed by Luna Pearl Woolf and written by Joyce Vavrek in which two performers play the title character. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge and cellist Matt Haimovitz covered, respectively, the verbal, physical side of the musician and her cello and cello-playing. This doubling worked extremely well. Haimovitz, silent and serious but always alert to Jacqueline’s demands and confessions, remained stationary on the soloist podium, while Jackie moved free-range till the very last act. Occasionally I found myself wondering if perhaps a dark mezzo would have been a better voice to have for du Pré to match the cello timbre, but the contrast too makes sense. She is light if chromatic, with musical lines spiky and not exactly beautiful; very playful, spirited, often silly. The musical line on Haimovitz’s cello on the other hand has gravitas; it seems to come out in one smooth, seemingly endless line, and has a dark beauty and no sense of humour.
The librettist Joyce Vavrek structured the work in four acts/fragments. First part follows Jackie’s life until her early rising stardom and marriage to Daniel Barenboim, while the second details the period of her first recordings, and the “delirious excitement, and the continual exhaustion, of life on the road”. First MS symptoms begin to show, but she suspects it’s all due to stress and mental strain. The third fragment finds Jacqueline alone at home ill with multiple sclerosis, slowly saying goodbye to life and finally, in a dramatic dialogue, to the cello. (Remember, 14 years passed between her early retirement from stage and her death). Haimovitz leaves the podium, and Jackie follows, saying “I’m afraid I’ll have to cancel all my engagements.” The final act is a fantasy – or what survives after the physical Jackie is gone. It’s the images and sounds of her in Elgar’s cello concerto before a large orchestra – in this setup the cello is in the back propelling the motion, she out front, in a glamourous red silk dress.
Director Michael Mori places the opera on a slightly awry concert stage, with bits of other scenery put in and removed as the opera progresses. This works well. But there are a lot of things to quibble with which should probably be tweaked in future revivals (and this opera should see many if there’s any justice). If we look at the surviving images of du Pré – she was quite a sex kitten, if I can put it that bluntly, just an extraordinarily attractive young person who could have been played as a Rheinmaiden, a Titania, a Tinkerbell. In this production, she is clad in dull retro clothes in various shades of beige and wears a long, retro wig. This opera has such sound foundations that it would work well, and probably better, if Jackie wore present-day clothes that suit best the soprano who is singing the role. (Haimovitz is in neutral black clothes that do not distract, as is only right.) Soprano Marnie Breckenridge is blond herself and could have easily worn her own hair in the role.
Another tweak in waiting: the way this fictional Jackie speaks. The OUVAH-emphasized posh English pronunciation puts a distance between us and the character and it slightly caricatures her. Her sense of humour is retro and weird enough! Just let her speak regular RP English, and when needed slightly de-poshify. It’s not a documentary, for Pete’s sake.
The extra distance was added by putting all of this on stage, one level up and away from the audience in the otherwise pleasant Betty Oliphant theatre. It would have worked better if the audience was on the same level and closer to the two performers. Imagine observing Jacqueline’s erotic writhing with the cello or her silly jokes or her final angry *fuck yous* – from a much shorter distance. A very different experience, I expect.
And while for the most part Jacqueline admiringly manages to steer clear from sentimentality, the final Elgar-fest act succumbs to it. It’s not treacly, exactly – but it’s way more demonstrative than the rest of the play. Jacqueline could run straight through with no intermission and easily end on “cancel all my performances” after Haimovitz’s final cello solo. What comes after is sliiiightly over-egging it.
There are so many brilliant details scattered throughout. “Daniel” is scarce after illness strikes, somehow always away on tour. In act 3, the sickness act, there is a polished silvery cello case on a chair next to Jackie that disturbingly reminds of a coffin. And who knew that the phrase “straddling the Strad” can sound so naughty?
Remember Svadba? This opera may live as long, travel as wide and get as many productions as Svadba: it’s small and compact, funny and serious, and packs a punch. To appear in its full glory, tweaks will be needed down the road. But you have three more chances to see it in its diamond-in-the-rough, world-premier-y incarnation at the Betty Oliphant: tonight, tomorrow and Sunday.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.