Random Reflections from Cologne

A short addendum to the thoughts about energy in performance which intrigued me so much last time I wrote for Culturescope; whatever it was about the indefinable something which infected not just the players but the entire theatre with sheer joy made its way out into the auditorium, and we ended our run of My Fair Lady with FIVE standing ovations in a row! (This can NOT be taken for granted, ever, and every single one gave us all such an exhilarating high.)

The nature of the Staatenhaus in Cologne means that the performers get to walk back to their dressing rooms in company with the audience as they leave, and a quite extraordinary number of people came up to us, faces alight, to say that they’d only planned to come once, but simply loved it and had to come again (meaning sold-out performances, which of course are never a bad thing!).

I shall treasure the memory of these performances for the rest of my life; they were sparked and eventually set on fire by something intangible and virtually impossible to describe.

In the midst of such fiery excitement, therefore, it was necessary for me to spend time in nature and to seek out other artforms, to refill the well of creativity (that’s how it feels to me, to really take the time to appreciate and take in works of art).

The nature bit is pretty easy in Cologne. I spent happy hours wandering around the Grüngürtel (literally the green belt), which stretches in a semicircle around the city centre, bounded on the east by the beautiful Rhine.

I have to admit, though, that my favourite bit of nature during this visit was my encounter with a pond full of very shouty frogs in the Botanical Garden. I’d never actually heard frogs making more than the occasional surprised croak; it had somehow escaped my notice that they can make one heck of a noise during the breeding season!

Here’s a short video I took when I first stumbled across them. It doesn’t capture the sheer volume of the cacophony, but gives an idea of the variety and weirdness of the calls:

Amidst the greenery, I stumbled one beautifully sunny day upon the Skulpturenpark Köln, an open-air sculpture park free to the public, in which I found a glorious refuge from the rest of the world in the form of this beautiful building:

This is the 2011 “Garden Gallery” by Sou Fujimoto (b. Hokkaido 1971). Visually, it is a very restful place; clean, straight lines, unadorned white walls, a clear Japanese ethic allowing the beauties of nature to be framed against its simplicity, the large windows meaning that the picture you see changes from moment to moment as you look through them.

There is no roof, so the sky is an integral part of the experience, and I spent an utterly peaceful couple of hours lying on the grass in here, breathing in the delicious scent of acacia flowers, released by the warm spring sunshine, and enjoying the soothing visual feast of green against white, with the blue of the sky just pointing up the contrast. This was so refreshing for body and soul, and I defy anyone not to emerge from such an artwork recharged and full of energy!

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Musings on Energy in Musical Performance

I’m currently in the final throes of rehearsals for a revival of “My Fair Lady” for Oper Köln, and it’s got me thinking a lot about energy.  Since it’s impossible to measure, there are a lot of people out there who don’t believe it’s a real thing; anyone who has ever been on stage and experienced what a huge difference it makes when an audience is really engaged, or who’s been to one of those performances where you end up with goosebumps, feeling that you’re wholly connected to every single person there, on stage and off, will know that it really does exist.

Even if we can’t name it properly or put our fingers on it, it’s hugely important, and influenced by many aspects; the relationship between the performers, the bond between the orchestra and the conductor, the weather, to name but a few.  Some you can influence, others not.

Rehearsals are a great chance to work on the bits you can actually do something about.  We start from an interesting place in this production, as many of us have taken part in it in previous incarnations.  It started as a production sung and spoken in German, and our Mrs. Pearce was in that production, along with many members of the chorus and orchestra, as well as a lot of the backstage staff.  The production was then taken over to Muscat, but the Omanis weren’t keen on it being in German, so most of the soloists were replaced with native English speakers.  That’s where I came in, as Mrs. Higgins, along with our Eliza and Professor Higgins.  It was then revived here in Cologne a couple of years ago, and now here we are again, this time with a new Colonel Pickering and Alfred P. Doolittle.

 

Here’s me outside the Royal Opera House Muscat

Feeling the energy between the performers change with the cast changes has been fascinating. You instinctively react differently to a new cast member, who is giving their own interpretation of the role, even when you’re constrained by it being a revival, and therefore they have to stick to the “way it was done before”.  Speaking of which, the original German version was full of details which our Muscat cast rebelled at as being unspeakable for English high society at the time.  I thought I was going to be sacked fifteen minutes into my first rehearsal, as they said that Mrs. Higgins came out of her house and fell into the gutter, drunk.  I flat-out refused, saying no lady in that era would ever do such a thing; luckily, I was joined in my strike by the fabulous Colonel Pickering, and then by other soloists.  We fought like tigers to get rid of such vulgarities and reintroduce a bit of charm, and I have to say that (mostly), we won.  We’d all liked each other from the start, and that shared experience forged us into a very close-knit group, which I think is something which boosts the energy overall.  Everyone I have interacted with since getting here has said how delighted they are that “My Fair Lady” is back, from the costume department to prompter to the extras.  We have even been able to relax and hone our respective roles (within limits) during rehearsals; it’s been great fun and very instructive.

We have a new conductor for this revival, too, which is engendering yet another layer of changed energy.  Both the energy between the conductor and the singers, and the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra, make a huge difference to a piece.  Put it this way; the members of the orchestra are apparently competing between themselves for the fun of playing in it!

En route to rehearsal in Cologne this morning

Those are the bits you can play around with in the rehearsal period, to a point.  A couple of other aspects can play with the energy balance fundamentally, though, and those are the environment, and the audience.

Out in Muscat, we were in their state-of-the-art (and utterly gorgeous) opera house; back in Cologne, we’re in the Staatenhaus.  This is an extremely odd space in which to perform, being pretty much totally unsuited to performances on stage and with an orchestra (let’s just gloss over the problems the city is having renovating its opera house).  They were learning how to minimise technical challenges last time, and this time is better, but it’s interesting to note the difference a venue can make (we flew out to Oman with *everything* – set, costumes and technicians, so can assess on that individual variable).

And the audience?  Well, that’s something that can never be predicted!  It varies, of course, from one performance to another, so even if all else is equal, some nights will dance and some drag.  We live for the nights where they take wing and sail off into greatness, but can never predict when that will happen.  All we can do is allow them to be possible; the rest is up to fate.  We’ve done our best in rehearsals; if you are able to get to Cologne and would like to be part of the audience, adding your particular energy to the mix, please do come along and see this production (details of dates and tickets here).  I could be biased here, but I think it’s going to be FABULOUS!

Mrs Higgins disapproves of your moral stance…
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Hockney’s Thin Legs

Hockney Yorkshire

Well yes, it wasn’t really about his thin legs, but the fact that he mentioned them in the introductory blurb made me warm to him even more.  He wanted to complete an artwork every day, in the early spring of 2011, to document nature’s inevitable forward movement, and the sheer beauty of the spring in one particular lane in East Yorkshire,.  Spring temperatures being what they are in that part of the world, whilst he would have liked to face his subject directly, he had to take refuge in his car (due to the aforementioned thin legs).

The idea was to document every day in that spring, and that he did.  The exhibition collates those pictures with the most impact, and it has to be said that they are stunning.  Ridiculous that it costs nothing to see these fabulous artworks!

These images were created (I am wondering whether one can still say “painted”) using Hockney’s iPad and a bog-standard app;  the limitations of the medium are very obvious as soon as you get anywhere near the prints.  It doesn’t matter, though!  Move back a bit; unfocus the eyes if necessary; this is mastery.  Hockney knows how to block colour, how to pull the gaze; it’s a masterclass in composition.

From the unfrosting ice of the first pictures to the lacy froth of the greenness in the last, this is an artist documenting his environment, his times, his intimate world, as they change infinitesimally around him.  The pictures are arranged chronologically, so you can actually feel winter turning into spring.  (I managed to do this the wrong way round the first time I visited, though, and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment!)

Characteristic purple of the lane, with spring in full flush

This particular picture is so light and hopeful, the blossom on the bush appearing like lace in the gentle spring sunshine.   Like all of these compositions, it’s best viewed at a  certain distance; I include a detail here as support!

Close-up of the hawthorn blossom

 

 

 

 

 

It really was quite astonishing to see what he had managed to achieve with his iPad; I entered as a cynic, and came out a convert.  So much so that I persuaded my mother, who had come to see me in performance, that we should both stay over near the venue so that she could visit the exhibition the next day – so I saw it twice, once in louring rain, the next day in bright sunshine.  Fabulous!

A multicoloured fairytale of a day, evidently!

The site of the exhibition was also fascinating in itself; Salts Mill, in Saltaire, near Bradford, West Yorkshire.  A massive building with a fascinating history (in short, the mill and the surrounding town of Saltaire was planned and built in the mid-nineteenth century by a textiles magnate by the (utterly magnificent) name of Sit Titus Salt.  It was all designed as an antidote to the “dark, satanic mills” that constituted Bradford at the time.  Saltaire is an immensely pleasant place even now; well worth a wander round if you happen to be nearby (it’s has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

 

One last look around.

The massive spaces and iron pillars of the mill made it a very good fit for these particular paintings; Hockney is definitely not what you might call an effete aesthete.  In fact, there is also a corner of this exhibition where you can sit and watch the drawings he made on his iPad as little messages to friends, pop up on three digital screens, and I had to laugh out loud a couple of times, not least at his stubborn pro-smoking missives.

After we’d left the exhibition, she for the first time and I for the second, equally entranced, my mother and I headed to one of the cafés in Salts Mill for refreshment.  I ordered a dandelion and burdock (for those unfamiliar with the drink, explanation here) and proceeded to stare, fascinated, at the beautiful patterns the light made travelling through it, making the liquid glow deep red, with complex patterns caused by refraction in the glass patterning the table, and changing with every sip.  I believe that one of the things that makes good art so worth chasing after and drinking in is the degree to which it sensitises you to the beauty all around you.

Well, that’s my excuse – pretty certain the bloke at the next table thought I was a thoroughgoing weirdo, photographing my drink more than actually sipping it . . .

Oh, and did I mention that it’s free to visit this exhibition?  Free parking at the Mill, and Saltaire train station right across the road.  Do make time to go if you happen to be nearby.

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When worlds grow and explode

I’ve never come out of an exhibition before so full of feelings and thoughts that I had to write them down immediately just to get them out of the way so others could flood into my brain. My head was full of beauty, and of possibilities, and I needed to write things down before my mind just exploded.  (This was a great excuse to find a little Parisian corner bar and order a glass of red.  Just to get my thoughts in order, you understand.)   I shall present some of those immediate, overwhelming thoughts unedited, in italics, with explanations where necessary (they were not meant for publication).  I’ve cobbled together some of my photos into short videos just to show the visual flow of the thing, but without the music, they are but poor reflections of the original.  There’s a proper video at the end, though!

This was the immersive Klimt exhibition at the Atelier des Lumières in Paris.  It was produced by Culturespaces and created by Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto, and Massimiliano Siccardi, with the musical collaboration of Luca Longobardi, and was one of the most fabulous things I have ever experienced.

Entering to the last, plaintive notes of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, stepping into Klimt’s birch forest as it breathed its last and disappeared.

I went in to the space consciously ignorant of what exactly was going to happen.  I’d read a few reviews which sparked my interest, and friends who’d been all told me I had to go, as it combined many interests of mine, but I wanted the full impact, and my goodness I got it.  The above was my impression of the first moments; it was halfway through the Klimt section of the exhibition, and it felt like I really was in one of his pictures, with leaves dropping gently through the air, falling onto the floor, ready to be crunched underfoot, with the plangent strains of Mahler the ideal emotional complement to the mood of the painting I had somehow actually entered.

Trees unfurling gradually until the last curl let the leaves drop and glitter.

I was hooked.  Klimt’s paintings moved and breathed, and I was not just standing and looking, but a part of the whole.  Utterly exhilarating.  WHAT a use of current digital technology!  Art is brought to life and set to music; aspects of paintings break away and move; images glow and then fade into nothingness; and the audience, by dint of being bathed in the light and colour, become part of the whole.  The possibilities in terms of theatre are obvious, and tremendously exciting (I want my voice to dictate when worlds grow and explode – I fear I may have let grandiosity get the better of me there!).

Gold on a neck close to a cheek, a hungry kiss, the subsequent sliding frozen in time but here?  Who knows.

The sheer sumptuousness of the Vienna Secession couldn’t have been better expressed, and the immersive nature of the experience really allowed one to smell and breathe Klimt’s abundant creativity.  Technically, what was happening was that they reproduced various of his paintings, projected them on to the walls and sometimes the floor, added a (very relevant) soundtrack, and through digital manipulation introduced movement.  I have no idea how they managed to project across such vast spaces without distortion, or how everything was covered in light and colour without (seemingly) any of the audience casting shadows, but the effect was breathtaking.

I don’t appear to have written about the jarring sensation when the exhibition finished each run, and the space was revealed in its original state; a massive concrete space, ugly, industrial (I believe it was previously an iron foundry), full of other people.  All that was utterly transformed once the show got going, and it felt as near to magic as I have ever got.  I spent over five hours in there, moving around the space to gain new perspectives as the exhibition repeated.  Time indubitably well spent.

These photos show the same space seconds apart:

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t just Klimt, though:

A swollen belly, a knowing look, and oh, OH!, Schiele’s dirty, shamed, defiant bodies cover the space, cover us . . .

  (do I have a penis reflected on my face?)

A logical correlation, a growth, but – like a cancer – maleficent, shocking; it grates.  

(I am not be the world’s biggest fan of Schiele.  I understand the flow of artistic energy between him and Klimt, but I cannot warm to his work.)

Hundertwasser (or, how to make the universe anew) is another matter entirely; I am well acquainted with his philosophy and with his life-affirming art, and was entranced by the short programme concentrating on his works:

A low, mechanical hum, and his golden ship breaks loose with a mournful bass trumpeting and circles the space, anticlockwise, unapologetic.  Birds fly, leaves explode.  Grass grows, and you know it’s the start of a perfect new world.

His gorgeous multicoloured cities grew in front of our eyes (In such fresh hope can a new architecture arise. Brick by fantastic brick, a curve here, a whimsical wall: look, no hands!).

I’d always loved his work, but what these artists had done, introducing an element of movement, adding just the right music, seemed like an enhancement, and it made me very happy.  I have been wondering whether one would obtain quite such enjoyment without any previous knowledge of these paintings.  It would still be a wonderful immersive experience, so maybe, but I do feel that my initial knowledge enriched my experience here.

The walls open up and reveal what’s behind, as that inner world revolves.  Organic openings; orgasmic.  Or maybe the wall’s moving?  Slowly, exploring?  I can’t remember how – if – this ends.

The immersive nature of this whole undertaking is truly new, thanks to the latest in digital technology, and truly mind-expanding.  It combines visual art with music which adds to it rather than clashing, and it uses imaginative techniques to focus on certain aspects and details, whilst providing a richly sensual overview of the oeuvre of these great artists.

I have to apologise, though.  This exhibition is now over.  However, this was only the first show by the Atelier des Lumières.  The next one is already in the pipeline – “Van Gogh, Starry Night” opens on 22 February, and I can’t imagine that will be less thrilling than this.  The side exhibitions (they are not content with blowing your mind just once) include Japanese art, and a contemporary creation.  (I could write pages about the stunning impact of “Colours X Colours”, the result of a two-year collaboration between the artists Thomas Blanchard and Oilhack, which was showing in the café.  Maybe I shall, another time.)  All I can say is that if you’re interested in the crossover of artistic disciplines, or want to believe in magic (or both), don’t miss any new output from this team!

Thank you for reading this far!  It’s actually impossible to fully express how innovative and exciting this exhibition was just using words, so here’s a video of the opening sequence of the Klimt programme, as filmed by a friend of mine (thanks, Sue!); this time, with the music that was so much a part of the experience.  My notes on the sequence were as follows:

Magnificent halls building out of nothing; pillars which grow and spread, a carpet rotating and setting into intaglio in a church.  Frescoes – what’s the antithesis of fading?  Creativity in visible motion.

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Stories, stories . . .

On the day when I was asked to contribute to this blog, I had by happy chance posted just a couple of hours earlier on Facebook about a children’s author who had attended our rehearsals for a production of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (she was there as a chaperone for her daughter), and ended up so inspired that she’d started writing a book based on what she’d experienced. I was thrilled by this, and ended the post with something like “art speaking to art”.

It’s something I feel passionate about, the way in which the arts can surprise each other, stimulating new ideas, waking us up to new possibilities, and ultimately connecting us in more and more interesting ways. We’re all telling stories, in our various ways, and the difference between a good story and a great one often lies in the details. Some of those details come from looking curiously at life as it passes, at the people we meet, at ourselves; others, given that we can’t experience everything for ourselves, come from the stories others tell. And the more different ways we can find of experiencing others’ stories, the richer our inner lives become, and the more we can tell our own stories in the most interesting way possible.

It’s a cumulative process, and one which definitely cannot be ordered and quantified (I like to think of it as similar to T. S. Eliot’s “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”.) You never know what might come to mind when, for example, trying to interpret an operatic role. An understanding of a particular facet of their nature might have come about from a character in a novel read decades ago; their bearing influenced by the beauty and pain of the ballet you last saw; a particular gesture cribbed from a painting seen in a foreign city; it’s all grist to the mill.

Of course, this applies to all of us, not just those who work in the arts. But I hope that a few of us who do can use this blog as an occasional place to drop in a few little words and hopefully inspire people out into the arts world to gather fragments and enrich all our lives. I personally can’t wait to read the children’s book I referred to in my first paragraph. Talk about shared stories! The author was inspired by our production, which was the combination of all our interpretations put together; we sang Puccini’s glorious music, which he set to a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano – and HE based his story on an incident in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”! Stories, stretching through history, being retold, embellished, refreshed, embroidered, twisted, watered down, peppered up, seen from a new angle – the more the merrier!

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