How necessary is Art? My thoughts after a week in Madrid

Having just come back from a successful and inspiring week in Madrid I can’t help thinking about what I experienced there. And by doing so, I am faced with a wonderful maybe unanswerable question: why is art so powerful? And furthermore: is it, that by touching an inner nerve art reminds us of what really matters? It isn’t that I don’t know how strong an artist can be, but perhaps amidst all the activities and impulses one is confronted with daily, one tends to forget just how important art’s impulses on us are…

Unexpected exhibition

Refuel Meal, 1996, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl on board

On my first day in Madrid, I experienced such a moment. Purely coincidently, I happened to walk through the Retiro Park and discovered the Reina Sofia‘s external exhibition space, the Palacio de Velázquez. After admiring the building and taking a few photos, I walked in, not knowing what to expect. A most fascinating exhibition of, an unknown to me, Japanese artist was being shown: “Tetsuya Ishida, Self-Portrait of Other“.

Not expecting anything, I observed the inside of the building first.  It is a beautiful, very bright and open space… perfect for exhibitions. Then, I started looking at the paintings. Very quickly, I felt disturbed by them. Who is this artist? Why do I get the feeling that the men being portrayed are machine-like human beings? Always the same person, sometimes alone sometimes as a series… More and more I started to reflect and understand that this is what our society is becoming. Men turning into producing machines, men being lost, men in search of their identity… Where has life gone? Questions upon questions springing to my mind…

Hothouse, 2003, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl and oil on canvas

Some paintings were so disturbing I first had to walk away to come back to them later. This artist touched a chord in me, moved something in me so that when walking out in the bright sunshine I was a little dazzled and first had to sit on a bench in the shade before moving on.

Zarzuela magic

A few days later during the dress rehearsal of Doña Francisquita at the Zarzuela Theater in Madrid, I experienced a different powerful moment. A dear friend of mine had managed to get us tickets, knowing that I very much wanted to see a Zarzuela. I had never seen one before and was very curious and excited to discover this typical Spanish Artform. What a wonderful evening it turned out to be. The theatre itself is a jewel, and the music by Amadeo Vives is lively and fun, the piece was premiered in 1923, using a big orchestra with a large guitar section added to it.

The highlight came when the Fandango, probably the most famous dance in this Zarzuela, was about to happen. We had already sat through most of the piece having enjoyed some beautiful singing, some laughter, and some flamenco dancing.  Now, in the 3rd Act, one of the protagonists suddenly came up front and spoke to the public directly explaining that the “Maestra” was here and that, totally unexpectedly, she had agreed to play for us the Fandango. My Spanish friend knew straight away who was meant, and was totally in shock and excited as Lucero Tena walked in and stood at the front of the stage waiting for the orchestra to start playing.

Lucero Tena is a legend, and I, although not knowing her until then, quickly found out why. She is now over 90 years old, and even if she doesn’t dance anymore, she most certainly plays the castanets like nobody else. The music she produces, the colours, the dynamics, the expression, the presence is absolutely breathtaking. As I sat there, I just could not believe what I was hearing. The whole audience just went crazy, and the 6 dancers who straight after danced, with their own castanets, the same Fandango, were so energized you couldn’t help but be fully taken in. Incredible!

Personal experience

The last experience I had which reminded me of the power art has, is probably the most personal. Of course, I wasn’t in Madrid just to visit, although that would be a good enough reason to go there. I was also there to perform. It turned out to be a very special performance, as this was also a present for a dear friend of mine’s birthday.

As a musician, one is very much busy thinking about this note or that rhythm, about this sound or that expression, this being together and that tempo… When the performance comes, it is necessary to let it all go, so that the performing can take place. Being an opera singer, I possess a certain amount of stage presence and acting ability. However when singing Lied, such as the Wesendonck Lieder (Richard Wagner) here, the acting becomes unnecessary, the music and especially the text are the most important.

On this evening, when singing “Träume” (the last of the cycle) I became aware of the power of my instrument and of my artistry… It is as if one touches the listener’s inner self through something unexplainable, one moves something inside… One feels the concentration, the silence, the strong emotions coming back from the audience, and really one can’t say how it happened… Quite magical really. And then, when public and performer join in a time of mutual silenced thanks after the last sound has rung, you know that you, as an artist, are important just for that.

Afterthought

Maybe I had, with all my little worries or stresses forgotten how vital and necessary my job and artform is. Not just as a performer, but also as a person. Today’s hectic competitive life often doesn’t allow us to remember this enough. But really without art, we become machines… just as in Tetsuya Ishida’s paintings. Maybe that is why these paintings were so disturbing and moving for me. It is vital to have such artists, reminding us of what is important: being a human being who feels and not a machine which produces.

Lost, 2001, Tetsuya Ishida, oil on canvas

 

2+

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…
1+

It needs to change !

It’s been several years that I am going to the opera and I am scandalized by the mediocrity and the absurdity of staging. The problem being that this phenomenon is not rare, on the contrary, it has settled during the last decades.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people booing the staging and yet nothing changes. We continue to give all the power to these artists, these great thinkers. We remain in this incomprehensible model of incoherence and, when we are lucky, we are satisfied with the feeling of “it did not disturb”. Excuse me? What did you say? A lucky chance? My bad…

That amazes me!

It seems to me that staging should participate in the success of the Opera, respect it, at least. I have often been able to hear people trying to find explanations, analyze what the director would like us to understand, what he would like to pass as a message, often unrelated to the work. In my opinion, from the moment we have to explain art to understand it, especially in music, then we move away from what art is. As Debussy said, “Music must humbly seek pleasure” and so should art do too. If we are forced to intellectualize art, it loses all its meaning.

I have the impression that we use the opera scenes to convey ideas that do not serve the work, often outright provocations. Commited scenes do not revolt me, on the contrary. Indeed, if the commitment, or the provocation of some staging is related to the text, respects the interpreters and the score, I say: Bravo . But to use singers like puppets to make them do anything, to make them sing at the back of the stage (without any acoustic help) or sing upside down, doesn’t do their voices justice and is a lack of common sense. To remove elements from the score or not to respect the specific wishes of the composers just doesn’t make any sense. I’m thinking, for example,  of the Guillotine in the “Dialogues des Carmelites” of Poulenc. This is an entire part of the score and libretto (sound of the guillotine in action and choir  voices disapearing one by one…). In the Munich production it was replaced by gas chambers and people surviving when they should not, loosing all the links with the libretto and the score. It is just one example out of hundreds. This is disrespectful and it is not a different interpretation but a deliberately distorted narration: it is inadmissible and should not be allowed.

It would be as if the conductor decided that the solo of Thais’ meditation should be played by a Xylophone, or that the musicians decide to play an improvisation whenever it isn’t written .

And yes, I can already hear the reactions: “No, we will not do re-staging of dusty, classics. We need new, we need change, we need to shake things up!” But I must say that the clean style sets, suits and ties costumes, the naked men, the men in heels, the scenes of sex, the blood everywhere… there is nothing new here. It has been seen over and over again! 

So, yes, let’s use the modern means instead. The technology for the benefit of all as in the exhibition in Vienna “Insights into Bruegel” that one had the pleasure to discover through Culturmania’s eyes or as in the latest production at the Munich Opera of  Krenek’s “Karl V” created by the great and innovative Fura del Baus. It is brilliant, it is good, so : it is possible! But doing just anything to change or be provative is a bad excuse for the lack of inspiration and ignorance of some.

I had the experience, in Paris during a concert version of “die Wallküre” at the Champs Elysées Theater, to hear one in the public screaming: “Thanks! we can finally enjoy the music without being disturbed by an absurd staging!!” and everyone applauded… It’s sad to get to this point.

Staging is part of a show, a performance at the Opera. The Sight and Hearing should work together to give us a successful evening. It is also the responsibility of the Opera Houses worldwide to no longer accept that stage directors are allowed to be all-mighty, capricious, or not professional.  Because as we can see, concert version works just as well and may work better and better. Shouldn t the Opera Houses ask themselves : What does the public want?  

The public knows what they came to hear, in fact, they chose to come to hear it. Subtle respect for the interpreters, the text and the score is, in the end, all that is asked for. Staging should  serve the Opera first, like the singers, the conductors, the musicians. Add a touch of dream, humour, poetry, emotion and most of all to take us further, allow us to extricate ourselves from reality for a few hours… It is in fact simple. 

 

Erica Luisella

4+

The perks of standing first row

This post is not about theatre, concerts or exhibitions. It more or less is a summary for all cultural events. In general one gets up, leaves the house and finds oneself sourrounded by other people, with similar thoughts and feelings about the event one goes to. The stage is the most important place in the location. Position counts! People seek for the best view or sound, or whatever. It´s all about standing in the first row! In events,  as well as in life!

But why is this so? Are we nor civilized beings, who should be able to talk to each other, instead of fighting for a superior stand?

This is why following you find my general thoughts concerning the perks of standing first row.

All the time we stand in between something. Our whole life tends to go between rows. When going out, it seems we have to compensate this fact: wherever we go, there always is the need of being first.

Not only in concerts or cultural events. It already starts with being on the subway. Once the doors open everyone seems to need to get in there as soon as possible. Our brain, under these circumstances, does not realize, that it even slows us down. Being inside first does not help the train go faster. It even slows down the process of people entering.

This same first row problem is valid for concerts

When I entered the concert hall Zenith in Munich the other day, to see Ben Howard, it already was quite crowded. People were jostling to see and hear best, not thinking about others. Everybody had payed the same fee and just happened to be there at different times.

This article title clearly contributes to the movie “The Perks of being a wallflower”. Though it deals with the exact opposite. People tend to become very pushy once it´s about their personal advantage.

Ben Howard in Munich

This obviously does not count for everybody, but for many many guests of events.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this, except for: Be kind! It´s not about being first in row, but first in YOUR life!

1+