Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Sorry state?

Distressing news from English National Opera of a type that's becoming worrying familiar. The Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami was supposed to be coming to London to stage his production of Cosi fan tutte, first seen at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last year, for the company. He has just pulled out - due to UK visa trouble. His British associate producer Elaine Tyler-Hall will take over.

ENO tells me this:

* He found the whole process unduly time consuming and hugely complicated.
* He does not feel he was treated in a respectful way.
* He works freely in both France and Italy and doesn't have these problems to get there.
* The Ambassador did try and intervene at the last minute but by this stage Abbas wasn't prepared to pursue the matter any further.

It takes approximately 30 seconds on Google - hardly rocket science - to discover what a distinguished guy this is. Controversial, influential, the most, alive, all the adjectives are there. He's 68. He was a leading figure in the Iranian New Wave movement in cinema of the 1960s. He's directed more than 40 films and won the Palme d'Or in Cannes for Taste of Cherry. Books have been written about him. 'Could there be a more startling, or intriguing, choice of director for Mozart's Cosi fan tutte?' said The Guardian last year.

Opera Chic had pictures of the production last year, along with the information that he has been refused a visa to the USA before now. But imagine if the petty officialdom in visa-land had decided to treat Ingmar Bergman like filth just because he was Swedish.

Kiarostami has commented: 'I would like to thank John Berry and the rest of the crew at ENO for the understanding and support they have shown in this very complicated but delicate situation. They respected my position and my principles in spite of the obvious fact that it was putting them in a very precarious and disagreeable position. I have to confess that this gives me hope; the world is still a livable place malgre tout....'

The UK hasn't been good at keeping out the real hate-monger extremists in the past, but for the visa system to make life or entry to the UK horrible or impossible for great artists, as they increasingly do (see Sokolov incident), let alone leaving them feeling they are treated 'not in a respectful way', is lamentable, inexcusable and makes me more than slightly ashamed of this little island. It's a sorry state of affairs, in which the state is not sorry.

Having so said, the reviews in Aix were not exactly outright raves - far from it. But that's not the point...

UPDATE: More on the story, from The Independent.

Concert, not catwalk

I have a rather angry piece in the Indy today about the way that the pressure on young female musicians to look good as well as sounding good has gone too far. Here's the Director's Cut. (By the way, I love Sarah, but if you look in the pages of the Indy at articles by Other People, you might stumble upon one of the musicians I had in mind.)

Sarah Chang is resplendent in front of the mirror at the Kruszynska boutique in Knightsbridge. She’s popped in for a concert gown fitting and has donned a fairytale creation of delicate pink and green lace over ivory silk. It’s perfect for Mozart and it looks stunning.

But maybe it is also symptomatic of the way that classical music’s female stars have collided with popular culture. A woman musician can play wonderfully and she can also look good – but what exactly is the top priority these days? The case of Susan Boyle has of course brought this issue into the headlines on an even wider scale.

Half a century ago, most female musicians did not care about their appearance: what mattered was how they sounded. Indeed, a ‘high priestess’ attitude seemed positively encouraged; anything visual was downplayed so that the music could sing out unimpeded.

In the 1940s, the pianist Dame Myra Hess always wore a plain black dress for her concerts. The late Rosalyn Tureck, famed for her Bach, was not amused when a press photographer captured an image of her, in her twenties, focusing on her legs. The Australian pianist Eileen Joyce (who plays Rachmaninov on the soundtrack of the movie Brief Encounter) enjoyed coordinating her dresses with the music she was playing, often changing gown between pieces; then, it caused amusement. Now, though, it’s de rigeur.

Chang, 28, adores high fashion and heels, but insists that her concert clothes shouldn’t be a distraction. “They must be repertoire-appropriate,” she tells me. “When I need a dress for the Brahms Concerto it must be substantial and robust, but if I’m doing a big Carmen concert the dress can be red and hot and fun.”

But has the pressure on young women musicians to look like supermodels gone too far? After all, these women have spent most of their lives practising their instruments for long, lonely hours, devoting themselves tirelessly to the interpretation of great music, making huge personal sacrifices and struggling for recognition. Then they’re judged on how they look. This is patently daft.

Of course the male musicians have worked equally hard, but men of comparable talent can simply don a tux or tails, pop on their glasses, brush a few strands of hair over the bald patch and stride on to a stage without worrying that they don’t look as if they’ve stepped off the pages of a glossy magazine. The music industry loves men who look good, but it’s not a prerequisite for a career. For 21st century women soloists, it seems that a gift for music is just not enough.

Female singers can get away with being overweight – a spare tyre supports the voice. But when did you last see in the world’s top concert halls a woman violin soloist plumper than a size ten, or a bat-winged female pianist under the age of 60? Yet some of today’s greatest musicians are seriously unphotogenic men. Grigory Sokolov, among the finest pianists on earth, is the shape of a Siberian bear. Even Nigel Kennedy is no oil painting. Would women with the equivalent in talent and looks have had the opportunities to shine? We’ll never know, but the speculation is sobering.

Some female musicians might have poorer careers if it were not for their physical beauty. This sounds frivolous, but there’s a darker aspect to it. I’ve attended music festivals (usually run by men) at which the women performers have all been not only gifted but also young, willowy and grateful for concerts. I’ve met female would-be soloists whose hopes of concert engagements following auditions have been dashed when they refused to do certain things beyond playing the music. And I’ve heard interpretations of great concertos by a few well-established women who look fabulous and whose images have been plastered over every music magazine, yet whose questionable musicianship has left me infuriated and incredulous.

To add insult to injury, some of the stuffier critics seem automatically to take against glamorously dressed female soloists. That’s equally iniquitous, because in some cases these musicians really are fabulous, yet find themselves presumed frivolous – again, judged for appearance, not expertise. In that sense, women in music just can’t win: damned by one set of people if they don’t look good, damned by another if they do.

Chang is fortunate: she has it all. But spare a thought for the undiscovered Susan Boyles of classical music who may never be noticed in a world in which the core values have become dangerously and often destructively skewed.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

More #operaplot entries...

In case you were wondering. And yes, I should be working.

#operaplot Love potion...Tristan! Isolde! Isolde! Tristan! Trisolde! Isotan! We're one! Marc! Melot! Ouch! Schopenhauer! Nirvana!

#operaplot He doesn't love me! And he shot his best friend. Wish I hadn't written that letter. I'll marry a prince. Now he loves me? Tough.

#operaplot Cards say death is her lot, but she never loses the plot. She shags Don Jose, then runs away; is she asking for trouble or not?

#operaplot Husband goes to party instead of prison after mix-up with a bat. Wife turns Hungarian to get him back. Blame the champers.

#operaplot Dear Don, 1003 women in Spain alone is too many. You'll be in deep shit when my dad's ghost gets to you. Go to hell. Love, Anna

[UPDATE: Sunday morning. *sigh*...]

#operaplot Therewasagirloftheregiment/ whoseauntieprovedanimpediment/ Shetookheraway,butcalleditaday/ whenToniosaid 'you'rehermum,youmeant'


There's a super article by Michael Haas, brains behind old-Decca's Entartete Musik series, at the OREL Foundation's website. Entitled 'The Challenges Ahead', it explores the problems of perception that surround Schoenberg's lesser-known contemporaries and suggests that we haven't yet learned to recognise individual voices for what they are. He also surveys briefly the impact of 20th-century totalitarian regimes on the music of the day, and on its audiences.

...Confronted with new yet familiar sounding music that is clearly moving away from tonality, artists instinctively refer to the “gold–standard” of Schoenberg and thus assume, for example, that Egon Wellesz and Hanns Eisler must have been less talented Bergs and Weberns, or that Ernst Krenek's twelve–tone opera Karl V was most likely a 'poor man's' Lulu. Few take the time to ponder what these composers did differently and why they felt compelled to modify Schoenberg's ideas. For the listener who demands challenging repertoire, there is still much that remains unexplored. All of these composers, along with several others, did indeed feel that music's progress would inevitably lead away from traditional tonality. Whether their music was the result of haphazard ideas or consisted of scrupulously mapped out serialism or diatonic–sounding serialism — reflecting Eisler's ambition to write “twelve–tone music for the common man” — it becomes apparent that the Second Viennese School offered more than just Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. In other words, when we listen to the music of Hanns Eisler, Ernst Krenek or Egon Wellesz, the issue should not be how they are similar to Schoenberg but rather in what ways they differ from him.

Friday, May 01, 2009

IMG Artists boss pleads guilty to fraud. The rest of us tweet operaplots

Jeeeeeez. Anybody think this one deserves a government bailout?

Drew McManus had the story in Adaptistration a couple of weeks ago (when I was down with flu, swine, critics or otherwise) and offers some interesting thoughts on implications for the music business and fees therein.

Meanwhile Norman Lebrecht, who reports on all that in Bloomberg News, is also busy contributing to the deluge of #operaplot entries over at Twitter. Hey, Norman, I thought you weren't supposed to say which opera the plot relates to...

Don't miss the fun! You can find all the entries by doing a search on #operaplot on the Twitter site. UPDATE: The limit was originally 10 per Twitterer, but Miss Omniscient Mussel has just thrown that out and now tweets that we can enter as many as we like. Get creating, folks!

Here are JDCMB's contributions so far. Since I tweeted these, others have started not only squeezing the plots into 140 characters but also turning them into limericks, which I haven't yet tried...

#operaplot Count <3 maid, valet <3 maid, countess <3 count, cherubino <3 everyone. Flowerpot broken, pin lost, chaos, remorse, love we hope.

#operaplot I can sing best. No you can't. Yes I can, cos shoemaker says so, and you're a nasty critic. And I'm GERMAN. Eva's in paradise :-)

#operaplot so why shouldn't I have a toyboy? whaddyamean he'll leave me for a younger model? Go gracefully, me?! Oh heck. Where's the tenor?

#operaplot Help, the snake will kill me! why are you dressed as a bird? OMG I'm in love. Nightmare mother-in-law. Let's find enlightenment.

#operaplot Here's my castle. Are you afraid? No, I'm going to open all those damn doors! Are you afraid? No, let me in! Who's that? Oh shit.

#operaplot Marie's dead. Marietta's alive. Paul thinks Marietta is Marie. Paul has dream. Paul doesn't murder anyone really. Bye-bye Bruges.