How to make misery interesting

I´ve just been down in the rehearsal room where Massenet´s hero Werther has been dying since 10:00 this morning. The atmosphere is brisk and deeply practical. Tenor Edgaras Montvidas is worried about his neck – all that last-gasp craning upwards to kiss Charlotte before his final breath expires on a D natural. Charlotte, our mezzo-soprano, Catriona Morison, Scottish and no-nonsense, is concerned that her corset may get stuck while she is trying to support his head.

Have no doubt, when Bergen National Opera´s new production of Werther opens on March 16th, we will all be in tears at the extraordinary trauma of the last scenes, at Charlotte´s journey of emotional self-discovery and at Werther´s ultimate sacrifice. Truly theatrical depictions of misery are hard to sustain – especially over the four acts of an opera which starts with innocence and a troupe of jolly children and ends with suicide. Charlotte and Albert, dutifully engaged to be married, have barely exchanged a hug when Werther appears, all poetry and angst, and she is thrown into life-disrupting confusion, heartbreak and self-questioning. Two hours plus is a long time in which to look soulful and fascinating. And as most of us know, misery is unkind to its victims. We are not at our most appealing when red eyed, pink nosed and quivering with passive aggression.

And of course animated misery on stage is hard to achieve in an opera without sickly consumption or blazing rows, some spectacular if unlikely misunderstandings or at least a distracting trip to the underworld. There have been countless productions of Ariadne auf Naxos in the last seasons – not one of them has really defeated the monotony of the eponymous heroine´s moping amongst her Nymphs and dreaming of death. Mimi, in La Boheme keeps it fairly short, expiring with some elegantly timed wheezing, surrounded by her weeping Bohemian friends. Courtesan Violetta fades gracefully – more coughing – reunited at last with her distraught lover. Verdi´s Desdemona barely gets a word in edgeways as Otello vents his rage and grabs her throat.

But my favourite angst-occasion was when playing in the orchestra for a European company best left unnamed, when the baritone, rushing on stage to announce further disaster to two weeping sopranos, was subject to perhaps the worst directorial decision in decades. It involved a dog, a table insufficiently fixed to the floor and a stage hand who changed profession rapidly after the event. Matters were not helped by an assistant conductor who had no doubt intended to embrace his most shining hour but who left the orchestra pit red with shame as opposed to triumph. The dog it was that had its day.

The director had decided that the scene lacked drama. The sobbing ladies were tedious, and the baritone, on his solo entrance, lacked gravitas. What better than to give him, an older gentleman in a tweedy suit and cape, a canine companion? Auditions were held for a suitably un-stage struck mutt, and eventually a large basset hound turned up slobbering a little but totally uninterested in theatrical life. Rehearsals proceeded. Stage management looked nervous but the dog was so lethargic, so indifferent, so floppy that anxieties subsided. I remember that it had a sign round its neck saying “it is forbidden to feed this animal”.

At the appointed moment, the baritone had to run on to the stage dragging the dog on a lead. He had to console, briefly, the ladies who raised their heads mournfully to ask what has happened. The baritone then tied the dog to the table where it snuffled and looked hopefully at the sopranos as if to say ‘any chance of a biscuit?’.  The baritone then embarked on a long mopey aria about some depressing saga in a wood when he was hunting. Faintly energized, all four then left the stage.

All this went fine until the dog went sick and a substitute had to be found. Now it was clear, from moment one, that this animal had different aspirations. Its eyes sparkled and mouth hung open with that gummy doggy smile much loved by old ladies and photographers. There was little time for rehearsal and Casper (his name) seemed genuinely taken with the baritone.

So the ladies wept and sang and wiped their eyes for just long enough before the audience began peering at the programme from fatigue, when the baritone and Casper made their entrance. No dragging this dog. Casper frisked onto the set, tail upright and waving, as though about to audition for Dogs Got Talent. The baritone tied him to the table leg and began to sing. Casper cocked his head and looked attentive. 

The ensuing duet was extraordinary. The dog took the upper lines with a clear, vibrato-less mezzo-soprano. The baritone, to his credit, sang on, while desperately trying to untie the dog from the table-leg. Casper, meanwhile, was trying to drag the table front stage. The conductor, urging the strings to play louder with one hand, was frantically signaling to stage management to get the animal off. Eventually a stage hand, having donned a cape and waving a branch – forest scene, remember – came on to the stage a little as though assisting Birnam Wood on its way to Dunsinane. The dog put up a fair resistance and sang all the way to the wings.

In truth, I don´t remember what happened next. Any weeping came from the orchestra pit where the players had long since given up and had got to the stage of mirth where breathing had become difficult. Maybe there was an interval. Someone else conducted the second half.

Werther, be assured, features no animals, and our Werther, Charlotte and Albert have no need of stunts to make their performance astounding. And great music, like Massenet, sweeps into the corners of the soul.

Meanwhile, rehearsals for the day have finished, and discussion on necks and corsets have turned into cast party plans for the weekend and how Karl Lagerfeld´s enigmatic cat Choupette is dealing with her grief. Someone is recalling a feline duet from Rossini. I´d recommend singing along.

Mary Miller

25th February 2019

Future sounds from Bergen

Oslo, minus several degrees, the landscape monochrome with luminous streaky skies. Bergen National Opera is in the capital at Operaen with a fine mix of nationalities and three Nordic composers to develop new operas for premiere in March.

This morning we slither over hard-packed ice to the rehearsal room to work on Øyvind Mæland´s new opera – one of three short works which Bergen National Opera has commissioned for Borealis Festival. The violinist is missing, the bass player is deep in discussion with conductor Steffen Kammler, and the singers are practising small swooping sounds and spitting consonants. Øyvind´s little opera is about tiny emotions – twitchy moments of apprehension, compassion, embarrassment – and the music is lucid, varied, and wonderfully eccentric.

Yesterday, Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi´s opera – a ‘trailer’ involving Beyoncé and female power – provoked fierce conversation. Ahvenniemi herself, an animated elf of fizzing energy, has a way with words: “Guitar” she says “you have an important role in creating confusion at this point.” The guitarist plucks with enthusiasm. Rebecka´s music here is full of collisions. Baroque vocal lines underline splintering string sounds, and Beyoncé song quotes croon over Straussian harmony. “Let´s go into this late-Romantic porridge a little earlier” she says briskly, adjusting her score.

In the canteen, singers from Operaen´s in-process production of Bellini´s Norma – the director is upcoming young Norwegian star – are noisily at lunch. A large baritone in fur, cape, Tolkien-like garb, is munching salad and barking on his phone. Long straggly hair, large boots and facial hair abound, along with Hollywood blondes and some startling make-up. Meanwhile the ballet corps are fiddling with their feet and giggling – other than a tiny ballerina who is crying quietly in the corner. Our guest BNO director, Sjaron Minailo, is wrangling cheerfully with dramaturg Gaea Schoeters. “How can you ask the composers about their ‘point of urgency’” says Gaea, rolling her eyes “it´s such a nineties question”. Sjaron mimes indignation “Really? Well how do we put it for our new cool age? Where´s the edge? I want to know their critical message.”

He had asked this of all of the writers at yesterday´s session. Our third composer, the quiet, thoughtful Lars Skoglund, had talked about how his opera – which takes place in a library where three people, an awkward triangle, converse in fractured whispers – reflected his fascination about how conversations chose words in a space where texts line the walls. Rebecka had talked about female assertiveness – a line in her opera talks about Beyoncé wanting to ‘wear a suit, go to meetings’. Our only male singer present, Halvor Melien, a proud recent attendee at a Beyoncé concert, spoke up fiercely ‘What! I don´t recognise the male sexuality you´re talking about!’ and we hastily moved on to how new violin bowing might produce white noise, and how to scream elegantly “without sounding like a horse” says Halvor helpfully, recovering tranquillity.

On Day Two, Annelies Van Parys – award-winning Belgian composer whose Private View Bergen National Opera co-produced with seven European partners in 2016/17 and is now with us here as a mentor – is discussing microphone techniques with singers Elisabeth Holmertz  and Lore Lixenberg, Lars Skoglund is handing out revisions and Øyvind Mæland is doubling as rehearsal pianist. Ahvenniemi is in the canteen writing furiously.

Exciting times – to have three new works in development, each one brilliantly individual in its sound world, each one topical, each one visually distinctive, is remarkable. Don´t let´s worry about our future opera. It´s all in good hands.

Mary Miller

January 9, 2018

Händel and Humanity

 

In Grieghallen´s basement rehearsal room, figures in tattered grey sing Händel as they shuffle towards a table where soup is ladled from a vast battered pot. The scene is bleak. We are in Ireland – or it could be Norway – in some kind of timeless misery with freezing weather and famine, where the country´s distant officials have long ceased to care, and where the church is struggling between old-school hell-fire authority and its need to offer succour.

So, here at Bergen National Opera we are creating a staged version of The Messiah for Festspillene i Bergen in a special edition by Malcolm Bruno, created from the original material which Händel took to Dublin for the oratorio´s premiere. The director, Netia Jones, acclaimed for her layering of stage direction, film and live video, is talking with passion and extraordinary clarity about the circumstances in which the oratorio was first performed: about the text – its writer, Charles Jennens was a devout Anglican and unflinching believer in scriptural authenticity – and about 18th century English snootiness towards a religious work being intended for the theatre. She talks about hypocrisy, about rural communities where a fundamentalist priest thunders about divine retribution as his congregation sickens and starves, about political representatives turning their backs and returning to warm well-fed firesides, about Godly but kind folk with a belief in hope tending the needy. She muses on Händel, newly settled in London, writing music of genius at furious speed as public opinion turned against showy Italian opera towards a near-craze for English-text oratorios.

But in creating the Messiah, Händel swerved from what had become his norm. For this new work, there were to be no highly dramatic roles for the singers; no individual narrator and no quoted speech. Though Jennens didn´t intend his text to be a dramatization of Jesus´s life and teachings, he did want to present (as opposed to explore) what he described as the “Mystery of Godliness” through extracts from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, and from the Psalms in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

For Netia Jones, the Messiah tells a deeply human story. The four soloists can hardly be said to have theatrical roles as such, but their characters are distinctly drawn. Soprano Kateryna Kasper is an angelic voice, a figure of innocence and purity. Mezzo Renata Pokupic is a mother – a shy, little known member of the community with a very sick child for whom she is seeking help; urgent help, as he is stricken with typhus. Our tenor is a curate – a young, naïve, idealistic priest in his first parish, struggling with the seeming brutality of his Lord and the flickering questions which torture the basis of his faith. Meanwhile, fire, brimstone, Godliness and prejudice define our bass, an old fundamentalist priest with the Old Testament emblazoned on his brow, and anger surging in his heart at the sin of his parishioners who have brought such devastation upon themselves. The chorus personifies the village, a mix of kindness, lost hope, burning zeal and raw survival. We see them in church, in icy limb-freezing weather, and, at the soup kitchen.

So the atmosphere, in rehearsal, is extraordinary. It seems that we hear Händel´s music unfold for the first time. Freed from the bulging choral extravaganza of the British concert hall, the music seems at once extremely intimate and frighteningly spacious. We are working with Bjarte Eike´s Barokksolistene and the gut-stringed mewing sound with chittering harpsichord is acutely human. The compact chorus – a mix of our own fine Edvard Grieg Kor and Washington Cathedra´s elite Cathedra vocal ensemble – produces fantastic sounds: blazing, glowing, gasping, and what seems, at times, like an end of life breath.

There are tough questions both to Bjarte – for the singers, it´s not straightforward to follow a skittering violin bow, as opposed to a conductor´s baton – and to Cathedra´s Michael McCarthy whose beat leads the most complex, contrapuntal material. For this is chamber music on the move – hard lines to sing in ensemble while navigating all kinds of instructions on stage.

In the weeks to come, we move to Den Nationale Scene as the work takes shape for performance; from the Great Music Hall in Dublin 1742 premiere for charitable causes – prisoner debt and aid to hospitals – where because of over-crowding, the audience were requested to wear neither swords or hooped skirts – to London´s Covent Garden Theatre, where the reception was chilly (such exalted outpourings should surely be heard in a church) to a small, beautiful Norwegian theatre.

There, after weeks in a grey airless room, Handel will take the stage. And why his masterpiece has endured, through theological questioning, public adulation and disenchantment, multiple editions and orchestrations, overcharged performance and countless Christmas bawlings, will become gleamingly, movingly clear.

To Jennens´ words, Händel will spell out his own glory. In some way, we shall all be changed – by great music shown to us as humans, and by a staging of consummate humanity.

Mary Miller

5th May 2017

Il turco in Norwegia

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“Wow” says Pietro Spagnoli, great Rossinian buffo baritone “we´re talking Rossini to Broadway!”

At Bergen National Opera, everyone is breathless from high kicks, razzle-dazzle, fancy moves and footwork. The dancers are sweating lightly, stretching their lycra-clad legs and fiddling with their feet. The chorus is gasping quietly and practising jerky movements as though searching for a wasp lost in their clothing – dance director Sean Curran´s routines are not, for sure, in their usual repertoire. The soloists are beaming and chattering in Italian by the coffee machine.

Welcome to Il Turco in Italia directed by American opera supremo Mark Lamos – a riotous combination of highly sophisticated ensemble, fabulous arias, touching moments and carefully choreographed mayhem.

Mark, along with designer George Souglides, last illuminated BNO in 2014 with Rimsky-Korsakov´s The Golden Cockerel – a Norwegian premiere which put Russian opera firmly on the Bergen map – and which created pictures never to be erased from memory: a golden cage shimmering above the stage with a jittering boy/bird as the eponymous cockerel; a wicked Eastern queen in a dazzling scarlet feather coat singing seductive lines to bewitch a foolish, doddering Tsar; a blasted landscape under a blood-red moon with ruined trees and a scattered, broken army. Unforgettable.

But Turco! It couldn´t be more different. Now, listen carefully – like most Italian opera, the plot is tortuous. We are at the seaside – maybe even in Pesaro, Rossini´s eccentric, enchanting home town. A poet, Prosdocimo, is looking for a story for his next libretto and in front of him, an interesting tale begins to unfold. Old Geronio (Spagnoli´s role) has a tiresomely flirtatious young wife Fiorilla, a girl troubled by a voracious need for male attention, preferably not from her husband. A Turkish ship sails in captained by the glamorous Selim – do not look to this opera for political correctness – and Fiorilla wastes no time. Meanwhile, Selim´s old girlfriend and a pack of gypsies are in hot pursuit. In the end, after a domestic ruction, a masked ball, a critical letter, it all resolves… How? You will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, upstairs on Grieghallen´s third floor, a mix of Hungarian, Norwegian and German costume makers are draping bling onto delighted extra cast members. The clothes are outrageous, all froth, silk turbans, shocking pink trousers and bosomy dresses. There are harlequins in primary colours and pom-poms, crazy hats, and skirts the size of Victorian overmantels.

Along the corridor, Øystein is working with his puppets, little gesturing, weaving miniatures of the principal characters, clad in matching extravagant silks. Little Fiorilla is learning to stretch her wooden hand to slap mini Geronio. He is organising his dangling feet to swerve smartly away.

But right now, we have a half hour break. Spagnoli has taken his dog for a walk – he never travels without her – and our office has adopted her with somewhat soppy adoration. The dancers are outside smoking, and Fiorilla, Spanish soprano Sylvia Schwartz is on the phone to Rome, to her children´s nanny.

Mark is composing an email to the Metropolitan Opera, New York – they´ll revive one of his Verdi productions next year – and we are trying to catch our breath. We´ve just had cake for Mark´s birthday, and the sugar high compounds the atmosphere of overall exhilaration. In ten minutes, Rossini will swirl gloriously back on stage, the music will bewitch us and our toes will start to tap.

Broadway, Pesaro, Italy, Bergen – here we come, with the Norwegian premiere of an opera like no other. Bring your dancing shoes – isn´t that what the aisles are for? – and settle in for a night on the town, at the seaside, in the company of our cast of sparkling stars.

Mary Miller

11/03/2017

Farmers & Fiddles

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Planning for Norway’s quirkiest festival – Mimì Goes Glamping 2016

We are standing amidst chintz and gleaming crystal in the exquisite downstairs dining room at Åmot Operagard talking about slaughtering sheep. The evening sun is catching climbing strands of honeysuckle outside the window, we are drinking champagne and the group of Austrailan farmers currently visiting on a Grand Tour are not in the least concerned with ambience. Not for them any lyrical chat about fish leaping in fjords or limpid azure skies. No, they want to know about fencing and grain quotas. Fresh from days in Iceland, a landscape from which they have emerged a little bewildered – more different from Queensland one cannot imagine –  they are off at dawn to Oslo, then Stockholm. Then, bizarrely, Bejiing.

So talk about opera doesn’t quite hit the mark. We’re visiting our partners Steinar and Yngve to make final plans for Mimì Goes Glamping, our boutique and somewhat quirky festival of opera, drama, food, nature and all kinds of fun. The Australians listen politely as we explain about Sir Thomas Allen as artist-in-residence, young Norwegian stars in the making who will sing arias on boats on the water, and bonfires with fiddles and folk music. They escape, possibly with some sense of relief, to dinner upstairs. We hear them chattering happily – the beef is delicious – and no doubt discussing its butchery.

Next morning to Førde, to talk to the hotel about festival guests, free passes to the spa and a possible opera brunch. Norway’s hotel workers are on strike and are sitting playing cards in a jolly yellow tent outside. Sunnfjord Hotel’s management, currently running a family chain gang, look tired but seem immensely cheerful. The spa, it turns out, is enormous and designed for suitably sybaritic lounging – we look with some longing at marble-lined pools where the water steams gently, and huge windows give on to meadow. No chance – we are due at the Farmers’ Market where a chill wind is scudding round the stalls and the temperature is close to zero.

The region’s producers, busy setting out fish, cheese, home-cured meats, artisan chocolate and juices, are critical to Mimì’s success; while they will bring a fabulous market to the event and their produce will feed our guests and artists, we want to celebrate them more. In Førde centre, this morning’s range is astounding – salami from young goats, dark, rich berry syrups in glinting bottles, salmon cured in local herbs. Grills spit and spark with roasting lamb threaded on sticks with wild asparagus, the scented warmth curling fingers into the air. It is now threatening to snow. Harald is slicing home-dried lamb and singing lustily. Hurrah. We hire him straight away to entertain late-night at the bonfire.

We talk to Sunniva who makes cakes and has just bought a beautiful vintage red van from some obscure part of Poland which she will turn into a mobile shop. We order a Mimi chocolate from Janne and discuss a possible festival cocktail made from blackcurrant liqueur. I begin to jitter from large mugs of tar-like coffee.

At the Kulturskule we plan a new opera involving local singers in which Sir Tom will star as a troll, and discuss fanfares with Angedalen-Brunns Brass sextet, a group who play on vintage instruments and dress -for reasons a little unclear- as though they are resident in pre-war Yorkshire.

And, we devise our own distinctly eccentric version of Blind Date for the festival. By August we will have assembled a gleaming new Volvo estate (the local dealer is a sponsor), a large shiny blue tractor, and a wonderful ancient Buick, along with three very cheerful young singers. Pay 100 NOK, blind-pick a ticket and you have a 15 minute date with one of these fine vehicles and your very own diva. Just think: a gently stylish drive around glorious countryside with the wind in your hair, and music in your ears!

More meetings, more decisions and a long drive home. On the ferry we eat appalling sausages while discussing the day’s gourmet offerings, the music, the weather and the way forward. Arriving home in Bergen close to midnight, small boats plough out of the harbour. The light is still grey-pale and blue clouds rush north.

Sleep. Dreams of redcurrants and vintage trombones. And possibly a date with a tractor. Mimì’s going glamping. I can feel the joyful madness settle into my summer.

Mary Miller

Sir Thomas Allen to Mimì Goes Glamping

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It’s such a pleasure and privilege that one of the opera world’s great treasures Sir Thomas Allen will bring a unique late-night show to Mimì Goes Glamping. Lucky us, lucky Norway!

But pity the poor journalist who tries to interview Sir Thomas Allen, our artist-in-residence at Bergen National Opera’s sparky summer festival Mimì Goes Glamping. Sir Tom, Britain’s most distinguished baritone, knighted by the Queen, awardee of practically every musical and vocal honour in Europe, star of everywhere from the Met to La Scala, now turned director is not prone to taking himself too seriously.

“Tell me, Sir Tom” said TV interviewer recently, wriggling a little in his chair “when you… er … re-embrace a role like Don Alfonso, is it hard to bring something fresh to the stage?”

“Oh no” grins Sir Tom “not when you’ve got a brain as small as mine…. Lucky to be singing anything at all at my age, actually….”

And so on. Ask about an opera, he’ll tell you a story about something hilarious that happened backstage. Ask about backstage, and you’ll get a ribald tale about the composer. But ask about making opera the art form more popular and expect an explosion.

Sir Tom is passionate about opera for everyone – in a speech at the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Awards he raged about ‘wet T-shirt string quartets’ and the promotion of ‘cutie’ opera stars as opposed to the development of the genuinely gifted through painstaking study. “I just want people to see opera for what it is” he says ” it doesn’t need to be popularised. It needs to be available!”.

Born in a Northern fishing village where almost every male family member worked at the local coal mine, he became a grammar school boy who sang but avoided school plays as being for ‘sissies’. Choirs were fine – part of the male voice choral tradition. The first member of his family to go away to college, he struggled with homesickness, rattled by the noisy swagger of his peers. But his voice pulled him forward. He became the college star, and the first of the important prizes followed. He sang in his first opera – Escamillio in Carmen- more by accident than design. The Queen was visiting the college, and the opera school was short of a baritone.

An extraordinary career has followed, paced by his own mix of outrageous talent and common sense. He turned down the mighty Herbert von Karajan in 1970’s because he “had a family and a mortgage and didn’t want to blow my voice on Verdi” – not reasons, one suspects, that von Karajan would begin to comprehend. But by the end of the decade he had left a regular job at London’s Royal Opera to embrace international stardom.

These days, in his early 70s, he is singing – still on glittering stages – teaching, painting and drawing, golfing, and a vital, vigorous champion for excellent performance. At Mimì Goes Glamping (and wow, we are so excited that the concept of our opera/activities in nature/great food festival tickled his imagination) he’ll treat us to an amazing late-night show where he’ll reminisce, sing and no doubt tell enchanting stories, and teach masterclasses to our young voices. And, true to his inner democracy, he’ll take part in our unique write-an-opera project with young singers and local choir members as….. Troll Murmartinstein, a beasty tyrant who eats small boys.

How good is that? No to von Karajan; yes to rural Norway! And some lucky journalist may even get a serious story.

www.mimigoesglamping.com

Learning to love bad taste

Published in Aftenposten, 4th April 2015

Isn´t it time we come clean and let go of the class wars, or at least allow ourselves to admire what we regard as bad taste.

A book described as ”the most important piece of music criticism of the last two decades” has just rolled purposefully off the press in a fine, shiny and expanded edition. By Canadian Carl Wilson, it examines not 21st century classical giants, but the writer´s own admitted prejudice. He hates Celine Dion. Wow, a brave admission. He says ”Her music strikes me as a bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast”. He rages about her song hit from Titanic winning an Academy Award, chosen above elegant, more fragrant, more downright well-crafted alternatives, saying ”As far as I knew… I have never even met anyone who liked Dion.”

Courageous words indeed – even if Dion´s local Quebec newspaper once described her as ’Miss Tupperware’. But Wilson is a decent man. He goes on to explore the singer´s all-consuming emotionalism, defines its fundamental schmaltz, and lends considerable generosity to his conclusion that Dion ”incarnates the woman who takes care of everybody but herself”. The cynic might add that this is all very well if you make millions doing so. Dion herself said, when interviewed ”My work is to enter people´s lives with my music. Do you think I want to disturb them when they bake? Do you think I want to disturb them when they make love? I want to be part of it”.

Dion goes for the heart

And so she is. At her stage shows, despite the awesome lustre of her delivery and the polished machinery of the event, she is perceived to sing directly to the tender spot in every heart; to the tiny hurt place we all nurse from childhood; to the brave person with the guts to love again. Go home, buy the CD. It´s not the same, but she´s still part of your baking.

To comment adversely on all of this is, of course, to risk noisy accusations of snobbery. It may sound patronising – distressingly so – but its still reasonable to claim that our taste in music has always been linked to class. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, after hefty research into everything from theatre and food to lipstick choices, reported that what we choose relates directly to our sense of social status; that we adopt the tastes of others to whose lifestyle we aspire is certainly old news.

The definitive Celine Dion fans, apparently, are isolated white middle-American, middle-aged women. So no surprise that Wilson says that Dion’s core fan group adore exactly the opposite of what he and his classical music critic cronies most fervently support. For sure no hard-core writer on Schoenberg really wants to be aligned with a daytime movie-watching widow from Nebraska.

We are all at it, obsessed with splitting music into narrow genres. Those obsessed with the aging rockers, the Micks and the Rods– and the wrinkled rockers themselves – endlessly disparage the latest wannabe Robbie Williams. Talk to supercool Scandi fans of Sigur Rós about Arctic Monkeys and risk withering disdain. The jazz world is closed to any but the fearless, and split into tiny arrogant factions. Classical music lovers (note ’lovers’ not ’fans’) divide, sneering, into all kinds of groups: to say that you love Shostakovich – unless you want to discuss minutely the polemics of his politics in the light of Putin´s present relationship with the Bolshoi – shows you to be rather naive. An interest in French Baroque excludes you totally from the Puccini ’canary-fanciers’ (the term was used only last week by a snotty bass-baritone). The Wagner aficionados bore everybody and we all know that the contemporary music lot are nerdy.

Time to ease up

Do we really? Isn´t it time we come clean and let go of the class wars, or at least allow ourselves to admire what we regard as bad taste. I loathe that Andrew Lloyd Webber´s easy melodies slide over me like bath foam, but I greatly admire his skill, his orchestration and the fastidiousness of his creative process. If you love late Beethoven quartets, must you feel guilty about a sneaky craving for Metallica? Should we examine that guilt, and ask what it is really about? Inherited parental attitudes? Something about soppy music/sloppy habits? A fear of raw emotion expressed too explicitly in tight trousers?

Let´s ease up, take the rock and classical labels away, and allow ourselves just to call it music. Art and entertainment may be very different but they can still be friends. Now excuse me while I slip off to listen to Schubert. After a stiff drink, I may even get to Celine.

Published in Aftenposten, 4th April 2015

The European Cultural Parliament meets in Pristina: politics, art, equality, strong coffee and opera

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Arriving in Pristina for the annual European Cultural Parliament meeting, we gather in the gleaming new airport foyer, all glass and marble, and so squeaky clean that one daren´t finger a surface. The airline magazine has already pointed out two unmissable Kosovan experiences: Pristina´s exciting nightlife and excellent morning coffee. These may, we feel, be related.

Driving into the city, a less upbeat scene is immediately apparent. Around the new airport are grim reminders of the old war airbase. Concrete bunkers and half demolished walls squat under barbed wire. Derelict vehicles lurk in lurching doorways. But the countryside is beautiful. Gentle hills, greenery, red roofs, verdant fields of vegetables. On into the city – we wave in passing at the cheery statue of Bill Clinton (Kosovo still loves the US for its unflinching support for its independence) – then pull up at the sumptuous Swiss Diamond Hotel where a flurry of flunkeys rushes to assist. ”Why is it, in these damnable conflicted Balkan countries, that there are always these ridiculous hostelries funded by the Swiss” mutters an elderly Austrian philosopher.

The coffee is indeed excellent. We walk past a half-built Roman Catholic church which looks untouched for several years, past the bizarre national library which appears to have been designed to replicate some strange tangled triffid, past innumerable posters of (Albanian) Mother Theresa, to the national museum filled with a mix of vibrant contemporary art and installations. A posse of disturbingly handsome political minders slide into the room, flanking the minister of culture Memli Krasniqi who talks passionately about culture and quality, and how fundamental both are to the growth of an emerging nation. Krasniqi will remain part of proceedings all weekend, an impressive and articulate contributor.

Dinner, then vague talk about the unmissable Pristina nightlife. All at our table are too tired. An early start tomorrow demands clear heads to listen to Kosovo´s prime minister, debate issues around new nation branding, the rise of neo-popularism, and to explore the peculiarities of artists´ knowledge which can bring insight to the business world.

So next morning, we arrive under the stares of even more sultry-eyed minders attending the arrival of the prime minister, culture minister and deputy foreign minister. The PM Hashim Thaci is formidable – the man credited above all others with the liberation of his country; there are probably about 17 different Kosovan/Albanian/Serbian versions of this story, which we will hear over the next three days – but his speech is formulaic and low on charm. Deputy PM Petrit Selimi is another matter entirely. Selimi studied in Oslo thanks to Thorvald Stoltenberg, who heard Selimi speak as a teenager at an international seminar. His speech is fast, tricky, funny and super-bright to point of being slightly dangerous. The PM´s body language, on hearing this torrent of virtuosity, is telling. That the European Cultural Parliament is in Pristina at all means a great deal; it´s a solid affirmation of Kosovo´s European aspirations. So Thaci clearly wants us to be impressed – but his squirming shoulders perhaps recognises that this young protégé needs ’supervision’.

The minders and the minded leave, and we listen to some bureaucratic noise about new nations and Europe, then some formidable interventions from various boisterous Central European members. The culture minister talks to me about how he wants to develop Kosovan opera – certainly they have the singers – two terrific tenors already are ’hot’ globally, Saimir Pirgu and Rame Lahaj – a good young orchestra and a choir of 50. But no venue. We talk about site specific work – the pros and cons. I say ’just do it’.

The day proceeds. So many ideas, so much talking. So much misery over new populism: Farage in the UK, Le Pen in France, Islamophobia in Denmark. At the National Library, we are to explore the artistic psyche: the session is called ’What artists know that others don’t’. We hear propositions from Ireland and Sweden before a mad intervention by Slovenian violinist Miha Pogavich who plays Bach while scribbling on a flip-chart (this is to explain the building and release of emotional tension). Pogavich sits next to me on the bus en route to dinner. It turns out that he knows Bergen, is a friend of Steiner School´s music director Magne Skrede with whom he shared a project some decades ago in Africa. He insists on borrowing my phone to call him, and I listen, incredulous, as Magne – ever gentlemanly – attempts not to sound bewildered at this sudden, untimely late night ear-bash.

So, shall we explore the exciting Pristina night-life? Um, no. But some report next morning that they did find a bar with local raki – but no sign of gleeful Kosovan revellers.

As well perhaps, for Ambassador Pär Stenbäck now leads a formidable session on the Ukrainian situation and its implications for Europe, shared with the Ukranian academic, Kateryna Botanova. It is intense, with several interventions from Russian ECP members asking that ordinary Russian citizens not be demonised. The brutality of the conflict is not glossed over: feelings are acute and solutions few.

Then, I have the inappropriately timed task of leading a debate on The Role of Culture in Gender Inequality. My French feminist colleague, Blandine Pélissier, who I know has prepared a vituperative paper on mispractice in theatre, shrugs and says ’after such a politically sensitive session, this issue is suddenly not important’.

We try to keep the discussion within a men/women frame – despite some vociferous interruption from gay activist singer/festival director Emilio Pons. We argue that GLBT are not victims of discrimination working in the artistic milieu. Quoting Gina Krogh´s 1875 speech, I urge concentration on the different qualities that both sexes can offer. Eliza Hoxha, Kosovan architect and singer, talks brilliantly. Lunch. Pristina-strength coffee. Heads are spinning. More about Kosovo´s opera aspirations from the culture minister. Maybe we send a Bergen task force?

Three of us absent ourselves from the afternoon session to explore a unique local monastery from the 14thC where we battle with an elderly whiskery nun for permission to enter; then a visit to the charming ethnology museum. Terrific dinner with spicy Balkan food. No-one reports exciting local night-life except for a few hardy Belgian raki raiders who turn up late next morning.

On Sunday we write resolutions for the EU on behalf of the Parliament, and start to trickle back to the airport. At the departure gate cafe, a young girl with pale shadows below her eyes and slightly shaking hands serves us odd sloppy cake and fine coffee – perhaps at last we´ve found an expert in Pristina´s exciting nightlife. It just doesn´t seem the moment to ask…

Mary Miller

13 October 2014

Tzars don’t change that much – Aftenposten, 24th March 2014

Mary-Aftenposten-Tsar

It´s timely that right now in Bergen we are preparing an opera based on a Pushkin poem about Russian imperialist ambitions. Rimsky-Korsakov´s Gullhanen (The Golden Cockerel) – which tells the story of a mythical Tzar who invades a neighboring country, and is pecked to death by a golden bird charged with warning him of danger – was completed in 1907 as a thinly veiled satire on Tzar Nicholas II´s abortive conflict with Japan. Banned by the censors, the composer never heard the work in his lifetime.

Meanwhile, here in Bergen, we have our own international collision: a mainly Russian cast all of whom are distinctly tight-lipped on the subject of their present aspiring Tzar´s activities, and a distinguished American director (who also has an acclaimed Wozzek currently at the Metropolitan Opera, New York) who is fearless in the face of controversy, and from whose lips flip ironic asides which most certainly pay scant attention to political niceties. So, while Rimsky-Korsakov´s gleaming swirling romanticism soars around us, a certain amount of muttering goes on in corners. The price of vodka in Norway perhaps does not encourage bi-lateral conversation to flow.

All this, however, does call to mind a peculiar editorial in a recent edition of the monthly magazine Opera Now,which stated re: composers´ choice of material that “(opera is not).. a suitable vehicle for reductive political messages or social commentary.” How bizarre. One would have thought that Gullhanen´s success at its premiere in 1909 – as for today – is exactly that the opera is sharp and topical, delicately poised on the fragile axis of wit and tragedy. Rimsky-Korsakov manages all this beautifully, sliding savage, terrible comments behind the most jovial musical lines, and providing a postlude where the Astrologer – a major and sinister mischief-maker – tells the audience in silky tones, that actually all they have seen is ‘just a story…’

One wracks one´s brains to think of a successful opera which doesn´t address some kind of social or political issue, from class differences and poverty in La Boheme, sexual politics in Don Giovanni, terrorism in Klinghoffer, to the endless theatres of war in Handel. So perhaps what ON´s editor intends is to criticize regie-led productions, where Madama Butterfly is dressed in vinyl and lives in a waterfront Florida apartment, or Leporello appears as a transvestite. For that, one can hardly blame the composer.

But what is disturbing here in Bergen is the reminder of our privilege. We smirk and think how lucky we are. But as artists and as citizens surely we should be activists for our near-neighbours against the present day Tzars – be they political leaders or cultural bureaucrats – who literally and metaphorically call the tune and the words which it sets. Perhaps in presenting Gullhanen today we should be aware that behind a ‘funny’ opera lurks not satire but a shocking story about leadership and corruption in 2014. The pecking golden cockerel should be a warning to us all.

Published in Aftenposten 24th March 2014

Irrepressibly outspoken, forcing reinvention – with Gerard Mortier opera has lost a king

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There are those in arts leadership, some highly effective, of whom one could say ’his project was himself’. Of course personal ambition can be a fine thing and in its swirling wake, great things may happen. Egos dominate in most high level activities; Gerard Mortier, who died yesterday, most certainly had ego. His project, however, was not himself. Gerard Mortier, tiny, dynamic, charismatic and irrepressibly outspoken, had a mission to carry – drag if necessary – opera into the present, and to force this ancient form to reinvent itself continuously.

Meeting him, which usually involved a long wait as he whirled along corridors on two cell phones at once gesticulating with spikey fingers, smiling, mouthing apologies, talking in an articulate stream, was like experiencing the shudder of a small electric storm. Mortier was always in the moment – even if his moment was not entirely the one that you, yourself were expecting. He did not answer questions. He simply and with great charm told you what happened to be in his head at the time – or possibly a sanitised version, as he was perpetually at war with some politician, administrator, city authority, director, artist or sponsor.

He appeared to be utterly fearless. In retrospect it seems extraordinary that he stayed so long in Salzburg, running a revered festival in an immensely stuffy city twinkling with Mozart kitsch and feathered felt hats, with snorting insults levelled at his head every day of his 11-year tenure. But he had already blazed through a series of distinguished directorships in the major German houses, and renovated Brussels´s La Monnaie where he incurred an eye-watering deficit. Post-Salzburg, he swerved off to the Ruhr – an ambience less like gemütlich Austria one cannot imagine – and directed a festival of largely site-specific new work amongst the derelict factories and coal-blackened communities. He led Opera de Paris (where a Norwegian syndicate including Stavanger2008 and the company which is now Bergen National Opera co-commissioned Georg Frederik Haas/Jon Fosse´s Melancholia), flirted briefly and disastrously with the now defunct New York City Opera, and held his last post at Teatro Real, Madrid. Typically, while practically on his deathbed, he interfered roundly and imperiously with the process to appoint his successor, insisting that Spain itself had no suitable candidates.

Much has been made of his last commission from Charles Wuorinen, Brokeback Mountain from Annie Proulx´s story – a work he had originally intended for New York. Wuorinen´s dense, uncompromising musical language is just the stuff of Mortier´s artistic prescription for the audience, though it roundly bewildered the conservative Castilians. He attended the premiere despite being gaunt with illness; press pictures show him animated as ever, waving the spikey fingers, insistent, fierce.

We the audience owe him for countless new operas. He may not have treated us well – Mortier´s audience were not handled gently as humans with individual tastes and interests, more as a mass of beings lacking in courage and imagination – but for sure he taught the doubters that opening one´s mind can be exhilarating. He knew that undoubted truth – ask an audience what it wants, and it will want more of what it knows. No surprise. Few of us want what we cannot imagine. But Mortier understood that if artistic leadership is ambivalent, confused about its own taste, it will bewilder the audience. Mortier was certain: we need the new, the provocative and the startling, even if sometimes it fails.

Composers, directors, singers, artists of all kinds owe him something irreplaceable: he asked them all to take risks, and in taking that leap, he encouraged them to grow, be curious, exceed their boundaries, often by quite astonishing margins.

I don´t suppose for one moment that Mortier thought he was brave, or even assumed that he was always right. About the latter his enemies no doubt would totally disagree. His mission was absolute, and one imagines that as his life faded, his mind was still racing with plans and arguments, speeches unmade and music unsung.

Mortier´s project is now our responsibility to continue. Opera has lost a warrior of regal status. Now the king is dead. Long live the princes he has birthed and robed in pioneering spirit.

Mary Miller

Picture: SN/APA/ACHIM SCHEIDEMANN/ DPA