The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, is concluded today. These links to the earlier parts may be helpful: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
You plan to perform Parsifal first here in Washington?
Yes, that's correct.
And when will that occur?
At the earliest, in the late spring of 2004.
You have a venue selected?
We have several venues for several performances. Unfortunately, we are unable to reveal them yet. You will have to read it in the Washington Post. Why? That's a good question. It is one of the great sadnesses of my life that leadership in the local Wagner Society who, for some bizarre reason and I can only think it's money, is trying to shut us down. We had several hard-won contracts rescinded for next year, through scare-mongering tactics leveraged on program directors of two concert venues. We are just starting out; but that does not mean we are amateurs. On the contrary. But people can get scared off if your title is head of the local Wagner Society and you say with that authority that the hall puts themselves at risk if they sign a contract with us because we do not exist. Our attorneys inform us that this aggressive action violates labor laws. We quietly gather statements. But, since we are new we cannot afford adversaries, just friends. Legal counsel advises us to take cease and desist action, but we don't want to begin on that foot. But we will, when their meddling in our affairs causes economic loss of future income to an intolerable level. It is already intolerable, in terms of future revenue lost and time lost rehearsing, but our singers and supporters push me not to cave and we go on to the next opportunity.
Just this past week, we had a lecture-recital program retracted in New York for this winter because I was told by a member of the sponsoring organization that the word was put out by the local Wagner Society that we don't really have a company. That is infuriating slander. We had been rehearsing for that program since last June, and since it was a lecture-performance it involved much more than just music. We were going to do it pro bono in friendship.
So, what I feel safe to tell you at this point is that we will be performing in the Washington, D.C., metro area in the late spring of 2004. We will also be performing in Chicago in March of 2004. When you see the ad in the Washington Post, you can buy your tickets. I know this sounds awful, but it shows how aggressive these people have been in scaring people once they discover our venues, to have contracts cancelled by using scare tactics about us. And again, they have never seen or heard us or expressed any interest in us. It's sad, because we would like to be able to shout it from the rooftops. Our attorneys say that is our right. This is not about our credibility. This is about how morally bankrupt and desperately afraid of something new a few in the good ol' boy network are. We can never trust them near our sponsors or collaborators. We cannot risk losing any more hard-earned opportunities we have been granted. The public, such as you, will judge for itself, and so far everyone who has witnessed our work is super excited.
I understand you received a note following the first installments of this interview from the local Wagner Society asking for a publicity review for a recent program of theirs that you never attended. I find the ethics behind that request consistent with their lack of ethics toward us. Imagine asking a critic to review something he never attended based on their input! I knew if they found someone giving Millennium any kind of forum to get out our story, they would seek that critic out under some pretence. I dare say it's pretty sickening. They try to stamp out any public notice we get from objective reporters or organizations that, like you, have observed the work of our company firsthand. That is totally scary to them; perhaps they think they can pump some info out regarding our venues along the way, which I surmise they'd like.
You have been a lecturer for the D.C. Wagner Society. What made your relationship with them take a turn for the worse?
Of course, they know of my musicological and professional production credentials. On the other hand, don't forget that the same leaders in the D.C. Wagner establishment would be happy if Millennium disappeared. I lectured with the D.C. Society for a couple of years and had been a financial supporter for several years. Their president is probably the one person I will be eternally grateful to for giving me my break as a lecturer in Washington, after several years in New York. I used to meet with him and he would read my research papers. All that good will and camaraderie died when I started Millennium, and to this day it breaks my heart. A few board members have privately told me that mine were some of the best lectures they ever sponsored. I have e-mails from them to prove that right here. But, once Millennium came into existence and was on my resume there were Board-level attempts to de-legitimize the company and me. I gave a talk last March on Die Walküre. Their board PR person in coordination with leadership deleted all references to Millennium in my official press release. I was told, "we will describe you as we wish, or you can cancel your lecture." All announcements about my lecture in the newspapers were cancelled. Even when their chairman introduced me at the lecture, all reference to me being Artistic Director of Millennium was removed. I have a cassette you can listen of that intro. Imagine: with some of my singers sitting in the audience! That's why I am banned from lecturing for them any more, despite the high interest and attendance my lectures draw. They don't want to give Millennium any attention. So now there are some members who dropped them and signed with Chicago, which has treated us fairly. And we have launched our own lecture series, for which we already have had tremendous interest.
Some speculate that the leadership is afraid of competition for Wagner dollars, One insider said that they once had an interest in funding their own Wagner company, and we beat them to it. So they are fuming. But these are business and government people, many retired; not performance professionals like we all are at Millennium. This has been a tremendous sorrow for me, because these people were personally closest friends of mine. But we are going to perform here in spite of their opposition. They do not own the market.
The Washington Opera is going to present one Wagner opera this season, Die Walküre, in November. Do you think there is any need or any audience for more Wagner in Washington?
There is a huge love for Wagner in Washington. I would say that the passion for Wagner in Washington is far greater than in New York, which I think of as more of an Italian bel canto town. So in answer to your question, yes, people in Washington just adore Wagner and are happy for opportunities to experience it.
Do you have instrumentalists contracted for Parsifal? Will the performance be accompanied by an orchestra?
Yes, there will be an orchestra. I do not believe in performing Wagnerian music-drama with piano. We will do recitals with piano, although I am interested in a recital program in the future with a small chamber orchestra. Obviously, we cannot afford a 100-piece orchestra, but I am looking at an orchestra of between 45 and 60 players depending on the opera. We are currently working with an "orchestra-wrangler," someone who contracts orchestral players for events. We have a number of conductors who are committed to the project, but I haven't decided on one.
Incidentally, the Wagner Society recently held one of their singers-sing-for-free recitals, using a small orchestra instead of their usual piano. I got an unsolicited e-mail from a board-affiliated person saying that my concept to do this, which I had articulated in past years, was theirs to enact because they had money and we don't. As in Götterdämmerung, they are rich with money but empty of wisdom.
You are confident that you will have the audience you need for your performances?
If people don't want to come to a fully staged Parsifal, that's their loss. If people can be coerced or told not to attend, that is really sad. But no one can control the spirit and love for Wagner's works of average independent-minded opera lovers. They cannot dictate what they do and what they attend. Oh please! Don't get me wrong, I expect two things totally! Number 1, they will boycott our performances, which is shooting oneself in the foot if you love Wagner, and number 2, they will organize a competing event, either a concert, dinner, or other some event scheduled exactly to occur at the time and date of our performances. Maybe they will try a last-minute effort to alarm our venue supporters. We will lose audience that way, which is their goal. But among other Wagnerians, they will gain their disrespect. They did this in New York. We held an informal get-to-know-us reception and fund raiser in New York over the summer, with a total admission cost of a potluck food dish and a free-will donation of anything they would like to help with. I had our singers fly in from as far as the West Coast, and our board members flew in to meet and greet. We received about 150 RSVPs and prepared for that. Well, the local society in New York got wind of our event a week after we announced it and immediately organized a concert to occur the same afternoon at the same exact time as our party. Press and talent agents, who had RSVP'd that they would be coming with some of their singers, suddenly didn't show, hearing that we weren't officially sanctioned. We had food for 100 and 25 guests showed up. But the impression the local society made on those who showed was not something that will be easily erased. And things turned around in Seattle. There we offered an evening of dinner, lecture, and recital in a fundraising mode. Again another society was pressured to stage a competing event. But this time, the leadership of that group ate alone. Because their members and the local Wagner attendees stormed our event, and we had super attendance and a wonderful evening. How sad. I don't think they will ever get it or wish to try something new that they don't dictate, like Wagner advised Siegfried his son. That can only spell out one thing. Obsolescence. The future of Wagner performance is waiting. We have a new vision and a solid approach. I think it's not us who has anything to be afraid of in the real scheme of things…do you?
The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, is concluded today. These links to the earlier parts may be helpful: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, continues. As the final installments are published, these links to the earlier parts may be helpful: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
On the question of money to start this sort of venture, what are your sources of financial support?
We do the things that all opera companies do: we run fundraising drives and fundraising events. These are what every single opera and music organization, any theater organization in the world, has to do and does. In his article in Die Welt, Breiholz seems to imply that we were somehow suspect because we have received money and continue to look for donors. This makes me laugh. The same people who accuse us of soliciting supporters have their hands out 24 hours a day. The bottom line is, our support base is really the small donor, the Wagner lover who wants new experiences and ignores the dictates of the establishment organizations to support only those Wagner initiatives they officially endorse. So we get unsolicited donations all the time. People send us letters that say, "We know what you're going through. We believe in what you're doing. Keep up the good work." That's the kind of letters I get, from strangers, out of nowhere. I guess this is what you call grass-roots support.
It seems logical that Wagner Societies in the United States would want to support you. What is the nature of the relationship between the Millennium Wagner Opera Company and these societies?
Most of the U.S.-based Wagner Societies have not given us any help, financial or in-kind, although we made efforts early on to let them know that we wished to be partners in a common cause with them. With the exception of the Chicago Wagner Society, which is by the way the oldest one in the country, and many good folks in Northern California, we've had the door shut in our face without even so much as a look at our work, our casts, or business plan. Individual members from all of these societies, however, do support us; I'm talking about official Board policies. In the east, we've had singers called and urged to drop off of our roster. In one case we had false press put out. It is so bizarre to our singers and musicians. After all it is in the filings these Wagner-supporting non-profit organizations make with the government to obtain their tax-free status that they are mandated to "support performance of Wagner’s music." What is worse is that, once people hear our singers and see the incredibly high caliber of our work and art, the contempt these groups have shown us becomes sickening, and the contempt people feel for them grows. For they should be helping us succeed in some way, not trying to sabotage us.
There are a few Wagner Societies we have not talked to and would like to. But judging how others who at first were interested in learning more about us, heard our CD and told us they loved it, but now refuse even to return a call, I think what is going on is a circling of the wagons mandated by the leadership of one or two very powerful groups. They get a call, are told not to help us, are told some sort of fallacious things, and they fall in line, displaying unusually unbusinesslike behavior, such as refusing to return calls, sending nasty letters, or demanding they not be associated with us in any way. We approach them with much deference and respect, so this is bizarre if not hysterical.
We can only figure that they fear potential competition for Wagner-related dollars. And they don't like the fact that we are paying the same singers that months ago they had convinced should pay them for opportunities to sing Wagner roles. Do not underestimate the panic this latter issue is causing. If singers stop paying to sing or stop singing for free, that is a big problem. Some singers are clearly too young to work professionally. But our singers must have stage resumes to be considered, and the ones we rescued from the trap of the pay-to-sing or sing-for-free net were ready for prime time a long time ago. So they go around scaring potential sponsors of our performances. It's sad. We are not a Wagner Society nor do we pretend or desire to be. But by their refusal to engage or support us, they have made themselves outmoded and irrelevant. We combine the best in scholarship and top professional talent all in one entity. Their own members watch them ignore us and come to us, if not just for curiosity. It's these Wagnerians, ordinary people who want new and exciting access to performance, who are excited about new ideas for Wagner, whom they can't control. It's that intuitive sense I think the leaders feel that they are losing control of the market or our growing popularity that is getting them to behave hysterically. But, no matter what the good ol' boy network tries, circling the wagons, putting pressure on other societies or Wagner groups, to turn their backs on us, it just boomerangs back in the form of anger from rank-and-file members. We get the e-mails, which in turn bring in support, and that all adds up. You see: average Wagnerians are very intelligent. They resent mind control. It's condescending, like these leaders are telling them they don't know what's good for them. Our friends in Germany are livid at their behavior, which they say demeans Richard Wagner.
By the way, in case you think it's an issue of not being professional enough to deserve support, the Wagner Society of Northern California, which I consider probably the finest and most progressive U.S. group along with Chicago, is now sponsoring a matching fund drive to raise $100,000 for a Wagner performance on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, with a company of amateur singers. Their performance concept is interesting, but this is to raise $100,000 for a campus performance in a small theater. I appreciate that, but how is it that we cannot get even $500 to help our professional cast with air fare for our Parsifal that we will be bringing to San Francisco next June?
Are we rich? No, we're utterly struggling financially, but I tell you that you will never see a more dedicated and determined bunch of people than my singers. And the more trouble we get from some of the Wagner Societies, the more determined they and our support base are. One of our brilliant singers has termed us "the rebels."
(To be continued.)
The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, continues. As the final installments are published, these links to the earlier parts may be helpful: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
You feel a deep personal connection to this project. In that light, how do you respond to the characterizations of your work in the recent article (Wagner-Wahn im Internet, August 19) by Jochen Breiholz in Die Welt?
I don't even know where to begin. First of all, the title of the article translates to "Wagner Madness on the Internet." The implication of that title is that we have some kind of dreamy person dreaming up an opera company concept using a Web site and that, on this Web site, this person, a musicologist, fantasizes about some sort of performance entity. The implication is it's really just her, trying to find singers and trying to make a few dollars. This is absolutely false and frankly pathetic because at the time Mr. Breiholz did his interview, do you know, we didn't even have an Internet site! That is how yellow this journalism is. We think, my company and our attorneys, that Die Welt has a "Jayson Blair problem" on its hands, recalling the young reporter from the New York Times who made up interview content, even made up interview occurrences. A young rogue reporter, emboldened by his status, using the medium of a high-profile newspaper, as a platform for his own purposes.
But let me tell you, because it is so key to this, that putting up an Internet site for the company was the very last major thing we ever did, after being in operation for about 14 months. Why did we do that? I put up an Internet site after we had been rehearsing, after all sorts of actual work, because we were going to embark on a series of serious recital fundraisers followed by paid recital work going into the season, and I felt that the public has the right to learn about us and our philosophy, see who we were, privately, on their own, before they purchase a ticket or make a donation. That's why I put up an Internet site. It was the last thing we did.
How did this interview piece come to be written in the first place?
Yes, back to Die Welt's "Jayson Blair." This is how the article came about. Breiholz came to my house last spring, with the plan of writing a notice piece on Millennium. He was a personal friend, from Germany, of a stage director from the Berlin Opera, with whom I was in a partnership for the company, for most of last year. Breiholz was going to help us get noticed by writing an article on Millennium in Die Welt. But he was really doing this to support his personal friend, the director, who was in Germany. (Breiholz, by the way, does not live in Germany; he lives in Brooklyn, New York.) So frankly he came to my house to help his friend, who was very interested in getting contracts as a stage director in the United States. I knew this privately all along and it was all right with me. But you may already begin to draw your own conclusions about this reporter's use of his newspaper's resources to serve his personal motives.
A month following the actual interview, there was a falling out between this director and me. It concerned the two opening performances of Parsifal, which I wanted to direct myself because I had already been doing all the stage direction, dramaturgy, and rehearsal work directly with the singers here in the U.S. for an entire year. He had not traveled once to the U.S. to work with us, either being too busy or thinking it too expensive. I couldn't argue with him on this, but I was not going to start all over with him. So at this point I asked him to take charge of all the tech and actual production, which is a huge task in itself, while I would continue with the stage direction. After these two performances when the production would go on tour, he could assume direction for other venues and then stage the other music dramas we were planning to perform. He refused, insisting on all productions or nothing. He said that you couldn't have two directors. Well, I am sorry, we were not going to put off rehearsal of Parsifal until he could get to the U.S. Moreover, the dramatic concept of these performances is so specific that I had to hold my ground, and he walked out. Although he has Wagner credentials, this director is not an expert on Wagnerian music drama in the way that I am. However, he is a very competent and meticulous director who has done work in Wagner and Strauss and we had much synergy about theater, drama, and production from the moment he approached me to work with the company, so I agreed to partner with him despite our overseas distance. My deal was that I do these two Parsifal productions, the premieres of our company, because this drama epitomizes everything that is important about Wagner. Then I hand over the reigns for the stage work but continue the dramaturgy and overall management of the company.
Now, tying that to the interview, Breiholz and I chatted intensely, but he took no notes and did not tape the interview. But imagine! I had no idea an article had run about us! I mean, I was not even given the normal courtesy every person who is asked and agrees to be interviewed gets, to be informed that an article about the company, and myself, was going to run, either by the writer or the newspaper. I had no guarantee of a piece running at the time of the interview but was told I would hear back, as is normal journalistic practice. Imagine my shock, when several months later, your Web site informed me, by happenstance, about it (see post on August 19, Wagner Festival in Washington?). That turned out to be, when I read it, about two weeks after it was in print.
My sense is that the interview is payback on behalf of his friend, our director, who is in kind of a huff about these productions. It's too bad because I continue to admire this director and consider him a colleague.
What is stated in the article that you would consider payback?
The piece is fabricated à la Jayson Blair. Words are attributed to me that I never said. It fabricates an amount of $70,000 for our Parsifal production and, worse, sends out a message that we expect singers and musicians to perform for free. Totally false! My singers who have already performed and musicians who have played can attest to not only being paid but being paid well! One singer told me she thought she was paid too much, and an accompanist said he received more than he expected. But you see, singers of Wagner in this country without major connections are used to not being treated well. They are made to sing for free and, worse, pay to sing. And these are not student singers. We have one singer on our roster who is in her mid-forties, a brilliant singer who has been singing professionally for years, who was called and reminded of her stipend with regard to singing professionally with us. We put a stop to that here. We recruit only the top vocal and dramatic talent and pay them decently. Our standards make it extremely hard to get into Millennium, but once they are in, singers are treated with appreciation. The word is getting out, making singers happy and a few groups alarmed. After all it's the "support" a few groups use to fundraise against, and it's free talent the public is charged to hear. The proportion of dollar handed out to dollar raised is interesting.
Getting back to Breiholz. Breiholz makes it seem as if the entire project is a sort of a dream on the Internet and that our total support is two checks. What I had said to Breiholz is that we have a lot of grass-roots support from dedicated Wagnerians, and I had shown him two checks, one for $50 and another for $100 that had come in the mail that day, as an example. In fact, we get unsolicited small donations from people all the time, but Breiholz makes us look like fools with two small checks.
He also makes The Bayreuth-Wagner Theater Studio, our role interpretation studio, sound like fantasy. He states that I don't speak a word of German which, if I were reading this, I would say this coach (meaning me) is not serious. The Austrian and German friends with whom I converse here in the U.S. would laugh at that. I lived in Basel for two and a half years, Holland for one year, and traveled during twelve years in Europe doing opera production and speaking German. For sure it is not as good as it can be when you live abroad, since it is hard to practice living in the United States, but it is certainly conversational and I know my articulation. Breiholz knows that, because we conversed in German the afternoon he was at my place.
The article implies that there is no active company, which is an insult to the hard work of my contracted roster of singers, and that is what really galls me the most. Nobody has been killing themselves more than my singers, against all the adversity that we've been dealing with from some persons within the U.S. Wagner establishment who are doing whatever they can to ignore and discredit us. Two Wagner Societies in the U.S. use a line guaranteed to scare off potential programming directors or sponsors: they deny that we really exist. Imagine! We have a geographically dispersed roster: all are professional singers under contract, from the West Coast from L.A. up to Seattle; we have singers in the D.C. area, New York, and Boston. Our people travel to get to rehearsals, and when you think of all the money, time, and effort, to have such a write-up, that makes it look like this is somebody's fantasy created on the Internet, it's horrendous.
A couple of other points. Breiholz was in possession of our opera CD at the time of the interview and certainly afterwards. He never mentions that or comments on the quality of our singers. Also, you may be wondering what we are doing with regard to the newspaper or him. We have the highest respect for Die Welt and think they, like the New York Times, have been "hoodwinked" by this young reporter, who by the way, covered his tracks immediately following with a high-brow interview of Debra Voigt. I'm sure he did bring his tape recorder for that one. We are in discussion with our attorney's German office regarding a retraction or apology, perhaps a new write-up, but we have been informed that under German law the Jayson Blairs of the news world cannot be sued for libel unless you can prove specific damages in dollars. Reputation, false image, loss of potential new support, or even scaring off new singers doesn't seem to register on their radar. But the Jayson Blair affair with the New York Times was a big enough wake-up call for all the big papers, and I'm sure Die Welt takes its reputation seriously and will deal with this matter, if only for the high quality of the paper.
One other point from the article by Breiholz in Die Welt: he wrote that you hoped to become "the American answer to the Bayreuth Festival." Do you hope eventually to have your own performing space and a regular summer festival?
No, we don't. This is another thing that Breiholz did not get right, either because he didn't understand English so well, or because he took no notes and did not tape our interview and so was recalling things on the fly. And of course, following the fallout with his friend, he developed a negative agenda. What I said was that the same arduous process that Richard Wagner had to go through to build the Bayreuth Festival and the physical Festspielhaus in the city of Bayreuth, the torments he went through, that is very similar to what we are experiencing. We will be a seasonal company, meaning that we will perform primarily from October or November through June. There are a couple of European summer festivals I am interested in, so perhaps we will perform at a few. I would very much like to have this company perform overseas, especially in Great Britain and Germany. But we are not a summer off-season company; we are a national touring company, with no city of domicile. Our prime markets are Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and perhaps Seattle. As for New York performances, you know I am from New York, why don't I say anything about New York? What happens to new companies like this in New York is that they end up playing in basements or empty churches. There is a huge establishment here that controls a lot. That's not what we're about; we're not a little regional venture. We are interested in performing possibly at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center's New Wave festival, and some other New York-based festivals.
(To be continued.)
The Festival d'Automne has been an annual event in Paris since its inauguration in 1972, under the guidance of Michel Guy and with the support of arts-friendly French President Georges Pompidou. This festival sponsors a lot of new art, plays, films, dance, and music, and people like Merce Cunningham, Iannis Xenakis, Edgard Varèse have been on the truly impressive list of regular invitees. Also interesting is the festival's annual contribution to l'art de l'affiche, the art of the poster, an artform which has been a French speciality. You can review past editions of the Festival d'Automne and their posters, made by artists like Joan Miró (1978), Cy Twombly (1979), Roy Lichtenstein (1982), Sigmar Polke (1988), Jasper Johns (1991), Bill Viola (1996), Martin Puryear (1999), and Anselm Kiefer (2000). The 1977 poster, designed by Jean Tinguely and featuring a Duchampesque machine infernale that looks like it was constructed of bicycle-part objets trouvés, is shown at left.
It is my hope that museums will continue the trend that many are following of creating more and more detailed and extensive Web sites based on their special exhibits. I don't care if they wait to put pictures on the Internet until after the show has ended, so that everyone has had a chance to pay some money to show up in person. The fact is that I cannot actually go to the Met, the Albertina, the Musée Maillol, the Hermitage nearly as often as I like (except in my dreams where I figure as the jetsetting culture czar appointed by the President). So please, Mr. Curator or Ms. Curator, put it all on the Internet, and I will blog about it.
Two exhibitions at the Met have caught my eye, making me think that Manhattan is one of my favorite places to visit in the fall. The first opens next Tuesday (Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through February 1, 2004). You can read a, sadly, imageless preview of the show by Souren Melikian (Middle Ages' Surreal Treasures, September 27) in the International Herald Tribune. As a musicologist, one of my areas of specialization is Gregorian chant, so I spend a lot of time looking at pictures of medieval manuscripts and, when I get the chance, the real thing. You know a text, musical or literary, is precious when someone took the time and expense to copy it by hand. The decoration, not just the glorious illuminated pictures that are part of this show but the everyday doodling and figuration that fills such codices, never fails to thrill me. I'll let you know more of what I can learn about this show.
The other exhibit at the Met that has come to my attention is The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839–1855, which will close on January 4, 2004. An article (Ingres's Nude May Be Lost, but Her Afterimage Lingers, by Vicki Goldberg, September 21) in the New York Times has an image of the daguerrotype of a nude portrait by Ingres, apparently of his wife, what strikes me as an intensely personal painting, which has been lost for 150 years. Some readers may recall my post about the nude in realist painting as a form of pornography (see post on July 28, A Whole New Perspective on Realism), to which historical trend this painting seems to be related. It is also interesting as a document of an artist's work life. The painting was photographed on an easel, behind which one can make out Ingres's portrait of Madame Moitessier (from 1851, now here in the National Gallery). This reminds me of a favorite painting by Matisse, "La Danse" with Nasturtiums (from 1912, now owned by the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow). A second version of this painting, which shows one of Matisse's canvases leaning up against the wall of his studio, from (where else?) the Met, is shown here. Although self-reference is not unusual in Matisse's paintings and has been used by artists from many historical periods, the photograph as the only evidence of a lost painting fascinates me. This is all the more poignant in the face of the apparent decline and fall of the entire medium of film photography, seen in the impending changes at Kodak (see Kodak to Stress Digital Business and Cut Dividend by Claudia H. Deutsch, New York Times, September 26). No less shocking is the phasing out of the slide projector, noted by Robert Fallon at Artblog (see post on September 20, Slide Divide).
George Plimpton, Urbane and Witty Writer, Dies at 76 (Richard Severo, New York Times, September 26). Not noted by Severo is one of Plimpton's lighter moments, appearing in an episode of The Simpsons. In his own words, he was "the emcee of a crooked spelling bee," a characterization in which he was "just evil and weird" (quotations from Robert Strauss, George Plimpton at the Plate). On a more serious note, see the editor's note on Plimpton's passing at his beloved Paris Review.
According to reports in the French press, there were 11 million visitors who took part in the Journées européennes du patrimoine (see post on September 19, European Patrimony Days). An article in Le Figaro (Onze millions de visiteurs aux Journées du patrimoine, September 22), which seems to have disappeared into the virtual ether, announced that there were 13,300 sites opened to the public this year. Since France had an estimated population of 61 million in 2002, I think those are impressive numbers, even when the possibility of foreign tourists among that 11 million is taken into account.
By what stretch of the imagination am I going to write about Polynesian islands today? Atuona Cemetery on Hiva-Oa, one of the Marquises islands, is the final resting place of two important figures in my imagination: Paul Gauguin and, only a few yards away, Jacques Brel. The former lived there from 1895 until his death in 1903, and the latter visited first in 1975 and went there to spend his final months from 1977 to 1978.
A group of articles (Gauguin: le génie du Pacifique, Portrait: un clochard aux Marquises, and Exposition: hissez les couleurs!, all by Jean Pierrard, September 19) featured on the cover of Le Point this week announced the upcoming Gauguin retrospective (Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques) at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, from October 3, 2003, to January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20. I will try to see it when I am in Paris. One of the Marquises paintings in the show is Contes barbares from 1902, owned by the Museum Folkwang in Essen (image at left).
Twelve of Gauguin's paintings are online here at Le Nouvel Observateur.
The Jacques Brel story has appeared on the evening news from France 2, and in some form or another in just about every French news publication on the planet (for example, Ludovic Perrin, Jacques Brel au-delà des Marquises, September 23, in Libération). What has developed is a sort of politicized brouhaha (the French term I am translating is "une polémique") over five recorded songs that the legendary Belgian singer made for his final album but that he decided not to include. For 25 years since his death, everyone has respected his dying wishes. Until this year, that is, when those tracks have been made public in a special anniversary collection. The polemic in the French media revolves around the decision by Brel's widow to release the recordings, supposedly for the profits. I am glad to do my part for Mme Brel, as I will certainly be buying the new collection when I am in France. Places had a lot of resonance for Brel (a major Ionarts theme), and his evocations of the crazy spirit of a city like Bruxelles or the windswept plains of Le plat pays, both from 1962, are beautiful tributes to his native Belgium. Still, I think that the lines that end Brel's song Les Marquises, inscribed on the monument on Hiva-Oa shown at right, are among the most touching that he ever wrote, at the moment when he was suffering with terminal cancer:
Veux-tu que je te dise / Gemir n'est pas de mise / Aux Marquises.
You want me to tell you / Groaning [in pain] is not appropriate / In the Marquesas.
The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, continues. As you will learn in this installment, I received an invitation to a rehearsal of singers of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, which I accepted. At the rehearsal which I recently attended, there were three real singers and an accompanist with Ms. Berger, and they worked on portions of Wagner's Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Walküre, as well as one of the Wesendonck-Lieder and one of Strauss's Four Last Songs. It is a privileged position to be at a rehearsal so I will not say much more than to observe that these three singers are talented musicians with voices and training perfectly appropriate for this sort of repertory. It was a delight to hear, and I hope that the company will ultimately have a chance to present the productions it envisions. You can also purchase a CD that features some of the company's singers, through the Millennium Wagner Opera Web site.
What are the ideas you teach in your vocal studio?
The Bayreuth-Theater Wagner Studio came about as part of the process of bringing singers on and rehearsing. What I will do is invite you to come to one of our rehearsals, and you can speak to our singers and find out from them what they think of our work.
That sounds great.
In the United States, Wagner coaching seems superficial. It's about dynamics or understanding leitmotifs. That's not Wagner coaching. That's vocal coaching of Wagner’s music. What we do is role interpretation. I work with singers on Wagnerian roles. I work with troubled singers, singers with vocal problems, singers who are blocked. This is not to say that I replace a vocal coach, because I don't. I have been told that it is myself and two other people in Germany who work this way. What I do is work inside the psychology of the part. I never tell a singer, "Tell me about Isolde, or who Siegfried is." We do a series of exercises in which they literally take on the character. I am not going into much detail, but this brings out a level of passion and intensity that they are not getting elsewhere.
How would you characterize your role in the company? Will you direct productions?
With our coach as my partner we do everything right now. I do initial screening of singer candidates and then we audition the singers. I’m doing all the admin. I’m hoping to acquire several interns from conservatories now that we're into the fall, because I need to offload much of the administrative work. We have a huge mailing list of people. If there is one role that I will always maintain, it is that of the dramaturge, because I understand these characters better than most people do. To make our Wagner productions searing, I have to do the dramaturgy part of it.
What are some of your company’s past performances?
We have not had a major production yet. We are only a year old. When you deal with serious opera people, people in the profession, they understand that you do not create an opera company and immediately start doing productions, unless you are doing some sort of local predictable repertory theater, the old war-horses like La Bohème, Aïda, and La Traviata, and things like that, and you just go out and rent a local theater. That's not what we are. It takes time! It took Wagner almost 12 years.
We have a new vision of Wagner. We've done this from the ground up beginning with a solid business plan. Let me tell you how hard it is to get into this company. I've had approximately a thousand singers send me resumes, send me cassettes or demo CDs, for the purpose of auditioning in the first year. My standards are different. I insist on absolutely perfect German declamation, unique color, professional experience, stage resumes, and absolute commitment to Wagner. We are not a freelancer company: every single one of my singers is under contract. They have to sign a roster agreement, a contract, meaning that they are committed to Millennium. The agreement requires confidentiality about the content of our programs, which is our intellectual property. This is necessary because last year some local adversaries were successful in getting some of our contracts for recital work rescinded. So, unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of running our mouths about our work. Does this contract mean they don't do any other work? No. Most of our singers work with other major opera companies and are under agent management, but they have a direct working relationship with this company that their agents acknowledge and are happy for them to have. In the case where a singer comes to us through an agent introduction, we always need to talk to the singer directly and hear a demo first. Since this is not a gig company, we need to get a feel for their commitment and long-term interest in Wagner. Then we make what accommodations we need to make. The agents that trust their singers and know about their dreams do not stand in their singer’s way.
(To be continued.)
My translation of an interview with Don DeLillo from L'Express (see post on September 14) has gotten some attention in the blogosphere. One puzzling reaction was that of Graham Lester (Intellectuals Say the Darnedest Things, September 15) in his blog uncategorical, who took exception to one particular line about life in the U.S. these days, that it "has become difficult not only to protest but even to speak":
Now, perhaps Mr. DeLillo is a genius of rare proportions. There must be some reason why he was being interviewed. But I must tell you that his answer to the question made me laugh out loud.It seems that this reaction confirms DeLillo's statement, rather than contradicting it. That is, forget about protesting: against what can one protest? Right now merely to utter a question publicly about the "war on terrorism" can put one into an uncomfortable position. Often the reaction to this line of thought (what does the United States need to change about its foreign policy to reduce anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world?) is simply condemnation. I think that's what DeLillo meant, not that authors are literally forbidden to speak out but that they fear a reactionary backlash to what they want to say.
Graham Lester has clarified his reaction to DeLillo's statement (see post on September 22, That Mighty Wind).
Anyway, to keep this post on the arts and not politics (see the Ionarts motto in the upper righthand corner), after leaving France DeLillo will be going to Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, and Zurich. He has also done another interview, this time with a German reporter (Jede Art von Macht verlangt auch nach ihrer Ausübung, September 22, in Die Welt), which I am not going to translate in full. However, there was one question that I thought was an obvious followup to the French interviewer's question about the action of Cosmopolis taking place in a single day. While that interview missed the chance to ask the question, the German interviewer did not:
In interviews you have sometimes called reading Joyce's Ulysses one of the shaping experiences of your youth. In Cosmopolis you present a novel that takes place in a single day. Is this a bow before James Joyce?
One of the first people to read the novel told me instantly, "Cosmopolis is Ulysses." I was careful not to make the book a revised version of Joyce's novel. Not that long ago on 47th Street, on which my protagonist drives in Manhattan, there was even a restaurant called Molly Bloom's Pub. Under no circumstances would I have used it in Cosmopolis. On the other hand, in the novel some minor mythological allusions can be found, not least that of Icarus. There is actually something that psychologists call the Icarus complex, which if it can be believed, applies to very powerful men who seek their own destruction.
The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, continues:
Some people approach Wagner negatively because of his personal life and faults, especially his anti-Semitism. Is it fair to consider Wagner's personal faults in one’s estimation of his music?
I'm very glad you asked me about that. Wagner's anti-Semitism is a big sorrow to me. That being said, I would really appreciate it if all the sanctimonious people feeling so insulted by Wagner's anti-Semitism would turn with equal zeal on Brahms and Chopin. Wagner wrote some things that were pretty unfortunate and that don't make me feel very good about him inside, but Brahms and Chopin took their feelings on the road. They literally went after musicians, Chopin in Poland and Brahms in Vienna, and they intentionally got Jewish musicians thrown out of work. I remind you that the conductor who premiered Parsifal was Hermann Levi, a Jew. Wagner said to him, "You are my Parsifal conductor." Rabid anti-Semitism was prevalent in the time that Wagner lived in Europe. When Jewish musicians needed a recommendation, or they needed a couch to sleep on, when they had been thrown out of a job because of that anti-Semitism, they went to Maestro Wagner, and he helped them. So, for all the hot air that Wagner blew on paper, Wagner hired these musicians, he gave them work.
The creative world owes Wagner a huge debt, and it's far larger than this one grievous fault. Wagner codified, in a system culminating with Parsifal, the message of fellow-suffering, the message of connecting enlightenment and redemption to the concept of activist fellow-suffering. For that alone, we owe Wagner everything because he stated this in word and music. If anything is going to save us from blowing ourselves up in this world, it's only going to be if we begin to feel the pain of other people. What Wagner says in Parsifal, and this is the difference between the characters of Parsifal and Gurnemanz in the opera, is that it’s not good enough to say you feel bad for someone. You have to do something about it, to help that person. Only the pure fool, who is everyone, who experiences the pain and suffering of someone else and does something about it, only that person becomes enlightened. That is a far more important and enduring message to the world than anything else that he ever vented. It’s a spiritual message, a Buddhist message, a Christian message. People tend to run away from this message, because it's not about "I-me-myself," it’s about the "thou." It's the Zen idea of abandoning oneself for the other, and that is misunderstood by a lot of selfish opera people. So what Wagner wrote is despicable, but in the end his gift to the world is profoundly important.
Who are the people involved in the Millennium Wagner Opera Company other than yourself?
We have a roster of singers: 16 or 17 prima artists, and a list of secondary singers who form the core of the company. I have a conductor based in Atlanta, and I am having conversations at this time with a young Italian conductor from New York. I work very closely with Thomas Pertel, who is the company's accompanist and répétiteur. He is also the company vocal coach, and a Wagnerian singer himself. He and I work together with every single singer. I trust Thomas with this company more than anyone. Another person who takes an interest is William Smith, President of the Wagner Society of America, based in Chicago. That society has a healthy curiosity and respect for our effort. Individuals on the board of the Wagner Society of Northern California have been privately encouraging as well. And of course our Wagner friends in Germany take a keen interest and keep an observant if not low-profile watch on our development, as well as our trials and tribulations. After all, one of the mandates of Wagner Societies in general as tax-exempt organizations should be to be supportive of the performance of Wagner. But within the rank and file membership of Wagner Societies across the U.S., we have many active supporters.
One important way that we have changed the way an opera company is run is to redefine the relationship between company and supporter or friend. It has been very painful and difficult to build this company from scratch. We had no "sugar daddy." This company is not the brainchild of some rich person who wanted to sponsor an opera company and throws some money at it. That often happens with new companies. The Millennium Wagner Opera Company came about a different way. As its founder, after years in opera production and as a musicologist and lecturer, I found that the opportunities to see really fine Wagnerian psychodrama in the U.S. were too limited. So for us, being a friend or supporter is not a function of dollars. Our supporters and friends are people who have stood by us and helped us to persevere, who said, "Keep doing what you are doing. We believe in you." Maybe they don't have much money, but it's the emotional and spiritual support they give us that make them our friends. It is truly a Wagnerian adversity, because when I read about what Wagner himself went through, all the naysayers, the saboteurs, the fight to have his work staged, even to build Bayreuth, I recognize in what he went through a lot of what we are going through. Certain Wagner organizations in this country have positioned themselves as obstacles rather than natural allies with a common cause. Isn't that bizarre? No matter how we have reached out, tried to make friends, let them get to know us, even offered performance samplers, they seem hell bent on stamping us out like a naughty brush fire! It's sad to say, but look if you look at Wagner's detractors, you see that a bit of history repeats itself.
(To be continued.)
A month ago now, I wrote a post (Wagner Festival in Washington?, August 19) about a possible new Wagner company or festival here in Washington, which I learned about from an article by Jochen Breiholz (Wagner-Wahn im Internet, August 19) in Die Welt. At the end of my post, I said that I was contacting the Millennium Wagner Opera Company to find out when they were performing and what they envisioned for their productions. I said I would write again if I learned anything, and so here I am. Thus follows the the first part of the Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, the founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company. It will be published here in six installments, which may not necessarily appear consecutively.
Why did you name your project the Millennium Opera Project? What is the significance of "millennium"?
"Millennium" really was not meant to have a special implication. I suppose you could say that, with the new millennium, we are trying to do something new. And that is a direct reference to something that Richard Wagner told his son, Siegfried: "Go do something new." And what I say about Millennium is that we don’t do something new just for news' sake, to be leaders, or to be eccentric. We do it because we are trying to expose the inner psychodrama, the spiritual drama that exists within Wagner's works. So I suppose it means "Wagner for the new millennium."
What is the difference between the Millennium Wagner Company and the Millennium Wagner Project?
The Opera Company is a subset of its parent, the Millennium Wagner Project. This is very different from most opera companies like the Lyric Opera or the Metropolitan. They have a larger entity, which is a performing entity, an opera company, and within the Opera Company they have a subset, such as the Metropolitan Opera Guild or an education department. Those departments within the Opera Company do things such as education, lectures, community outreach, and fundraising, but everything is subservient to the performing entity, which is the Opera Company. The reason that I have structured the Millennium Wagner Opera Company in the exact opposite way of the standard set by these opera companies today, by having the opera company become a subset of the Project, has to do with something I believe spiritually about Wagner. It has to do with the message of Parsifal, because I believe that Parsifal was Wagner's culminating statement on everything he had been building toward in all of his music dramas, what he called "fellow feeling" or "shared suffering," this concept of Mitleid. "Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor" is the message of Parsifal, which means through the experience of sharing the suffering of others and doing something about it, we become enlightened. That is the subtext of all of our work. That is what Parsifal does: he does something about it; he heals Amfortas. Only then can a pure fool, who is any man and who is every man, become enlightened.
That is what I think is Wagner's primary message to the world, that people need to be sensitized to the suffering in the world and to go out and help people. Not to feel sorry for them: Mitleid is not pity or compassion, it is really shared suffering (literally "pain-with or with-suffering"—ed.). If you read his late essays, especially the volume of essays called Religion and Art, you see that Wagner is involved in antivivisection societies, animal rights, the whole notion of suffering in the world. If Wagner were alive today, I believe he would be an activist in many social, economic, and environmental causes. So I have structured the performance company, the opera company, under the rubric of the Project because the Millennium Wagner Project, the outreach project, is the community outreach piece that does programs for the poor, the sick, the aged, the people I call sidelined in life, the ones you don't usually see sitting in the seat next to you in an opera house, the disabled, the mentally handicapped, the vision-impaired. That is our larger cause, because in the end I am not looking for an egotistic product in which this is all about performance. My belief is that the greater purpose of Wagnerians in life is a spiritual purpose, an active selflessness, to go out and help people. That's why tickets to the Festspiele in Bayreuth are shockingly low compared to their imitators in the major opera houses of the U.S. Our program of community outreach through the arts is the umbrella organization, and the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, a fully professional performing company, is a subset of that larger mission. It is this new structure that I insisted on, for which I had to fight with my incorporating partners to establish. I think we are larger than just getting on stage and getting applause. That sets us apart. It also makes us vulnerable to criticism, because most of the world is very self-centered. Most people in the world of opera, frankly, are very self-centered. We are trying to be spiritual people in this field.
What will be different about your productions of Wagner?
Our production work is similar to the Stanislavski method, which I studied for many years. That is the acting perspective. I also bring a lot of movement, because of my background as a dancer. All of my singers do a lot of physical movement in rehearsal. Thirdly, we do tremendous amounts of bonding to the characters. Rehearsals are very similar to psychoanalytical sessions. It's very intense, and it will produce a dramatically charged performance. Nothing is kitsch in our productions; it's all pretty deadly serious.
It seems that you envision a more traditional interpretation than what has been attempted sometimes in recent years. I take it you will not be presenting Der Ring with laser guns?
It's not that it’s traditional. It's more abstract, in a particular sense of that word, what comes to your mind when you think of Greek drama. This was Wagner's basis for what he created, even in his plans for the Bayreuth theater, which was based on a Greek amphitheater. If you think of the way that Greek dramas are staged, there is minimalist use of light, costumes, and props. I don't think traditional is the right word. I think shifting the time period in a Wagner production can be good, if it comes out of the psychology of the work. We are exposing the bond between the inner psychology of the characters and the inner psychology of the person sitting in the audience.
(To be continued.)
You may recall my discussion of the concept of a national patrimony and Prosper Mérimée's role in creating one in France (see post on August 6). Well, if you happen to be in France this weekend, take advantage of the annual Journées européennes du patrimoine (September 20 and 21), during which buildings and other treasures not normally open to visitors are often open and free of charge. Le Monde has put together a Sélection de sites "journées du patrimoine", with links to Internet resources put together for the event. (Here is a sampling of other coverage of the event in the French press.) One interesting detail this year is the action of French archeologists, who have joined forces with the intermittents du spectacle (see post on July 30) in the belief that their future employment may be endangered. No word yet if strikes from these groups will threaten any of the events this weekend.
The Bibliothèque Nationale, the Archives Nationales, and the Sénat are all hosting tours on which you can see areas normally closed to the public. For this year, the 20th anniversary of the founding of this event and the 200th anniversary of Mérimée's birth, the theme is "Spiritual Patrimony," which is a fascinating choice, I think. This does not mean that all the monuments on the program this year are sacred buildings. In a perhaps not unrelated story, however, the church that Le Corbusier designed for the town of Firminy-Vert (see Le Corbusier's drawing at left) will finally be completed, as reported by Emmanuel de Roux (Le chantier de l'église de Firminy redémarre, September 19) in Le Monde. As it turns out, Le Corbusier made a lot of designs for Firminy, only of one which was the unusual church (see the plans and documents related to his work in Firminy). According to the French Ministry of Culture, "Firminy is today the most important European site for the work of this architect." As you can see in Le Corbusier's drawing, the church will resemble somewhat another type of structure you see occasionally in the French countryside, a nuclear cooling tower.
Finally, for mentions of Ionarts, thanks to Byzantium's Shores (on September 15), Travelers Diagram (on September 17), and Maud Newton (on September 18). The translation of the interview with DeLillo from L'Express (see post on September 14) has been quoted out there in the blogosphere. Problems at Blogger the past couple days may have given some readers trouble trying to find it. Sorry about that. I also apologize if you are not seeing the Ionarts banner above: trying to get that fixed.
Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes must be prescient because he managed to be away from Washington this week. As you probably know, I am writing from the midst of Hurricane Isabel today (check out the awesome satellite photograph in this BBC article, Hurricane Isabel: Your Experiences). It swept in around noon and is supposed to do its worst this evening. So I've been looking out at the wind lashing the trees with sheets of rain and thinking about the theme of violent nature in art. If you want to see an interesting selection of paintings on this theme, take a look at the online exhibit Painting the Weather, featuring 100 paintings from 50 museums around Great Britain, put together by the National Gallery, London, and kept online by the BBC. Ando Hiroshige's depiction of rain pelting people crossing a bridge (image at right) shows that nasty weather can indeed be beautiful.
One of the nice things about being a teacher is getting to stay home when the students do, for snow days and, much less frequently, hurricane days. We had no school today and it seems highly unlikely we will have school again tomorrow. So far, the District of Columbia has not floated away and, if I survive to post tomorrow, then you will know that things turned out all right. Since I am able to post this, you can tell that we have not yet lost power, although that may change. Even if it does, we have a piano, a flute, copious amounts of sheet music, and candlelight. That's right, none of the elements of a classic Schubertiade-like Musikabend require electricity. I think the first piece should be Chopin's Raindrop Prelude.
As readers may know from my obsession with Paris, I find the artistic lives of cities, real and imagined, interesting. Now I have been reading reviews of Peter Ackroyd's book London: The Biography. The book has recently been translated into French, which is why I got on this thread, from the review (Ici Londres, un Anglais parle aux Français, September 11) by Christophe Mercier in Le Figaro. See also the materials related to the book as covered on WBUR's show The Connection; the review by Chris Hall, Growing Capital, in Spike magazine; the review in the New York Review of Books; and the review by Patrick McGrath, A City Much Like Hell, in the New York Times. You can also read the book's first chapter.
I can't quote from it here (see the very strict copyright notice at the bottom of the excerpt), but I can say that the first chapter drew me in. Ackroyd describes the city's prehistory, places where one can see evidence that London was once underneath the ocean. Into that scientific narrative he weaves quotations from writers observing sealike qualities of the city of London, and the effect is quite beautiful. As Christophe Mercier observed in his review, "The image we have of London comes most often from writers." The list of writers Ackroyd covers, Mercier notes, includes obvious British choices (Pepys, Defoe, Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad, Martin Amis) but also French authors (Hugo, Dumas, Féval, Vallès, and Céline). I don't have any idea how much Ackroyd comments on art about London, but works by Turner, Monet, and Canaletto (see image at left) are only the start of the list. I'll be looking for a second-hand copy of the book (now on Amazon for about $10) at some point.
Ackroyd has continued on the theme of London in his new book The Clerkenwell Tales (reviewed recently by Phil Baker, London Calling, August 16, in The Guardian, and not yet available in the U.S., I think).
So I am reading Marcel Proust's massive novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and I thought I would share a passage every once in a while as I make my way through the labyrinth of prose. This time I'm reading the old Moncrieff English translation and comparing it with the original from time to time. It's a pretty good translation, I think, although I have felt compelled to make a few changes below. Here is the end of the first volume (Swann's Way in English and Du côté de chez Swann in French), which I found particularly beautiful this time:
|The contradiction that it is to seek in reality the paintings in one's memory, which would always lack the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being perceived by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme. Swann did not appear, all the same and at the same moment, for the Avenue to be another. The places that we have known belong now only to the world of space on which we map them for greater convenience. They were only a thin slice in the middle of the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is nothing but the regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are fleeting, alas, as the years.||La contradiction que c'est de chercher dans la réalité les tableaux de la mémoire, auxquels manquerait toujours le charme qui leur vient de la mémoire même et de n'être pas perçus par les sens. La réalité que j'avais connue n'existait plus. Il suffisait que Mme Swann n'arrivât pas toute pareille au même moment, pour que l'Avenue fût autre. Les lieux que nous avons connus n'appartiennent pas qu'au monde de l'espace où nous les situons pour plus de facilité. Ils n'étaient qu'une mince tranche au milieu d'impressions contiguës qui formaient notre vie d'alors; le souvenir d'une certaine image n'est que le regret d'un certain instant; et les maisons, les routes, les avenues, sont fugitives, hélas, comme les années.|
You have probably heard about DeLillo's new book Cosmopolis. He is going to be in France, on a book tour I think, later this month (see Don DeLillo: la chute du golden-boy, from Radio-France, September 9). Furthermore, l'Express published an interview with DeLillo by François Busnel ( "Je n'ai pas de réponse littéraire au terrorisme") on September 11. I found this interview so interesting that I have translated it here. Since what DeLillo said is coming back into English by way of French, my rendering may be far away from what he actually said: please accept my apologies.
After September 11, 2001, it seems it was rather difficult for an American writer living in the United States to express himself freely and at length. Is this still the case two years later?
Yes. A wind of insanity has, in effect, blown over this country. It has become difficult not only to protest but even to speak. That said, to protest what? Against September 11, which was an attack against America? You protest against an idea or political system, not against an attack which is an ineluctable and unforeseeable fact. Hatred and confusion have reigned for a long time: how do you protest against a group of terrorists? You must admit it's a little absurd, right? The real question is not to know if one is against or for it, to protest or accept it, but to understand it. And it's difficult to make that be heard.
To understand what?
To understand what our place should be in the world. To understand what reasons could have led to these attacks on September 11. To understand how the American way of life influences thousands of lives in the world every day.
How do you react when people tell you that, in a way, you foresaw the events of September 11 in your novels?
I don't believe that writers are prophets. Sometimes we have a tendency to see things before they happen, or well before others understand them. But it's easy for a reader to find in a novel a passage that seems, in retrospect, prophetic to him, when it is obviously not. I don't want to create a literary theory about the world to come or to pose as a prophet: that would be absurd. Besides, some of my books have nothing to do with politics and are connect to the body or to language. I do not have a literary response to terrorism.
But if you take The Players, for example, which relates in particular a terrorist attack against the same towers of the World Trade Center...
If there is in my work a permanent reference to the World Trade Center, it's above all because I saw those towers being constructed, little by little, year after year, to the point where they ended up becoming the symbol of banality in this city of skyscrapers. This is an experience only New Yorkers can understand, perhaps, but literature can share it. Over the years, I ended up getting used to those two intruders, and I stopped having negative feelings against them. Then, one day, they fell.
How do you define the role of the writer?
I hate to be the spokesperson. For me, a writer should be someone who thinks "against": against the powers that be, against big business, against uncontrolled consumerism, against unceasing waste, against everyday cynicism... I do not apply this principle consciously. When I begin writing a book, I start from a character and a situation. Nothing more. Then, when the characters take on their own dimension, when the story falls into place, over the course of weeks and years, then things insist on being recognized, to come out. We are immersed today in a "culture" so powerful that it absorbs absolutely everything, including artists, who have a tendancy to become more and more impotent, as banal as disposable products. This intellectual and economic leveling out has something equally disturbing about it: everything ends up being fabricated to be consumed instantly and safely. So, when an artist tries to write against this system, I believe it's a salutary undertaking.
Would you also say, as in Mao II, that writers have many points in common with terrorists?
Things have evolved, making that comparison more complicated. In that novel, Mao II, the main character, a writer, is convinced, in effect, that his work is related to that of terrorists. When I wrote it, at the end of the 1980s, it was partly my belief. But is truly my opinion? Perhaps, sometimes. First of all, it's the opinion of a fictional hero. I recognize that today I have trouble understanding that character. What the terrorists have gained, he thinks, writers have lost. In other words, today's novels no longer have any impact on the collective consciousness, they no longer manage to shape the world, while terrorism is the only thing that can change a society. This is rather true: what novelist of our day creates an adjective derived from his name? No one. The last was Kafka: we say of a situation that it is Kafkaesque.
Can we speak of a DeLilloesque world?
I don't think so, and I hope not... Everything makes clear that it is the dictators and the terrorists who manage to alter consciousness, to influence spirits, to shape souls, to change societies. It is they who make the news. They have become the blacksmiths of our time. That's what Bill Gray, my hero, says in Mao II. And in a sense that's what came out of September 11: terrorism became the world's narrative mode. For two years, we have been in the era of terror and terrorism. It's what dictates the law of the world. Writing no longer plays a role, the writer no longer shapes consciousness. Is there a real connection between writers and terrorists? I wouldn't theorize... But that connection seems interesting to me and should be explored.
What was the impact of September 11 on writers, and on you in particular?
It's still too early to say exactly, but it was terrible. Terrible to live through... I'm not sure that it will have a real influence on our way of writing and thinking. When Kennedy was assassinated, in November 1963, I don't think people asked themselves if his death had an impact on fiction...
And yet it's true...
Yes. In effect I have written about that time, but it was about the end of a world. Everything changed with Kennedy's death: suddenly a great confusion was born, as well as a distrust of all future governments. The idea of a plot emerged and, with it, the consciousness that the people would never again be told the truth. All of this was quite new in American culture and certainly affected my way of writing... As for September 11, which is also a terrible trauma, we have to wait... It is young writers who will tell us, in five or ten years, what its true impact is. It is they who will write about September 11. If they don't do it, then perhaps I will.
In fact, American writers hardly seem inspired by this tragedy, while there is a great tradition in United States of novelists directly in contact with the great events of their time, such as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Mailer, Jones...
That's true, but Hemingway or Mailer wrote about wars in which they had taken part. September 11 has nothing to do with "a good war," as we say. For Hemingway, for example, war was an accumulation of wounds. It was a completely natural territory for him, as it was for all who were enlisted in the Marines and produced in effect great novels, since they were confronted by the event for three or four years. September 11 is completely different: it is not a war, it happened to us suddenly, no one has had the time to live it for a long time. You can't produce a novel from this experience in the same way one produces a novel from one's time in the army.
How do you perceive New York two years later?
Everything is different. In New York, September 11 is still present in everyone's mind, but no one talks about it openly. Nothing like the rest of the country, which seems not to think about any longer. Here, people wonder if they can still live in the city, they ask themselves about their safety and the safety of their children. It's there like the invisible residue of a terrible blast. I pass through Grand Central Station every day, and I see soldiers with guns and dogs sniffing suitcases at every turn. New York seems like the capital of a third-world country which is in a state of permanent alert. We live every day in a state of emergency. This lets up from time to time, but as soon as the kernel of bad news rises up, everything takes on terribly exaggerated proportions. I believe that everyone thinks that what happened to us could happen again tomorrow.
Has behavior changed in this city that you lampoon so severely?
The psychology has changed. The train stations and some big restaurants are deserted by people who seem them as obvious targets. On the other hand, everyone has gone back to their normal life, at least in appearance. In New York, beware of appearances! New Yorkers are quite different from other Americans. Here, we are better equipped to face adversity, because New York is a town where everyone is stressed out, where everything is always urgent. In spite of that, I don't know a single New Yorker who wants to leave the city, while a resident of Los Angeles wants to leave the city because of stress. It's a city without equal. Terrifying.
In Cosmopolis, you advance a Golden Rule for anyone visiting New York: avoid visual contact. Fiction or reality?
That's reality. Visual contact has become very dangerous here. If you walk down the street, you never look someone in the eye, you never know what can happen: a look can signify a whole range of emotions, from sex to violence. This is true especially in Manhattan, around 47th Street, the Diamond District, between 5th and 6th Avenue, neighborhoods with broad or narrow sidewallks. It's for this very reason that I call this city "Cosmopolis." It was different in the weeks after September 11: we all believed a different humanity was rising. But today, all has gone back to what it was before. In Cosmopolis, my hero, Eric Packer, crosses the city in a stretch limousine with tinted windows, precisely because it spares him from all visual contact.
Cosmopolis takes place in a single day, in April 2000... We wonder if you are going to write, ultimately, this novel on September 11, 2001...
One day perhaps... I began Cosmopolis before the attacks, then I had to stop, because it was impossible to write anything at that time. But I think the key date is that very one: April 2000, that is, the moment when the financial market collapsed, when recession took over from years of enormous growth. That was the end of a world. The 20th century truly ended then, in the tumult of this day in April 2000.
Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes and Ariana French at Artnotes have already commented on this, but in case you missed it, you should read Blake Gopnik's venemous review (A Bad Impression: At the Corcoran Gallery, Seward Johnson's Travesty in Three Dimensions, September 12) in the Washington Post of the exhibit that was the subject of my post on September 4. While I cannot say I disagree with anything Gopnik says, the tone of the review is truly nasty (e.g., "The exhibition provides the most mind-numbing, head-spinning, belly-flipping experience you're likely to come across"). However, as I predicted, more popular reactions have been positive: see the reviews in The Hoya (Matthew Lewis, Corcoran Goes "Beyond" with Impressionist Art, September 12), the National Review (Meghan Keane, Unframed: A 3-D Leap at the Corcoran, September 12), the Saturday's Child section of the Washington Post (Janice L. Kaplan, A New Dimension Is Added to Fine Art, September 12), and Washington Parent (Susan Badder, You Are Invited! Going Beyond the Frame with Seward Johnson at the Corcoran Gallery). I still believe that the Corcoran is going to make a lot of money on this exhibit.
Art Daily reported on a very interesting project called International Art Blog, which will be online until October 13, sponsored by the Centre of Attention in London. I spent some time surfing the site, featuring reports from bloggers in Berlin, Moscow, London, Tehran, New York, Los Angeles, Lyon, San Francisco, Chicago, Brooklyn, Milan, Tokyo. Interested yet? The way they describe their activity is as a "network of operatives . . . using the power of digital technology to survey the art scenes from across the world . . . to provide an alternative version of events and to challenge the hegemony of those who persist in setting our agenda." That freedom is one of the blogosphere's greatest strengths. I'll be reading.
Yes, we are doing it again, trying to destroy a foreign culture and replace it with our own. Agence France-Presse reported today (carried by TV5 as Warner/Jeunet, des fiançailles franco-américaines qui sèment la discorde, September 12) on the standoff between French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the Centre National de la Cinématographie. Jeunet began shooting his new film Un long dimanche de fiançailles [A Long Sunday of Betrothal], based on the novel by Sébastien Japrisot (winner of the Prix Interallia in 1991; translated into English as A Very Long Engagement) and featuring Audrey Tautou (from Jeunet's very successful Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain; see also Jeunet's dossier spécial on this film), last month. (Jody Foster is also rumored to have a small part, according to ForeignFilms.com. This has been confirmed on Jeunet's Web site.) So far, the CNC refuses to authorize the film, an official stamp of approval without which no French film can receive any government funding or be supported by any of the national television networks. The reason is Jeunet's alliance with the enemy, the American film industry, in the shape of media juggernaut AOL Time Warner: "It is clear that Warner is investing lots of money in the movie," a CNC official is quoted as saying, through 2003 Productions, a subsidiary of Warner France. Jeunet has said that if the CNC refuses to change its mind, his film may be delayed or even canceled. It is unlikely that that will happen, however, since the CNC sees 2003 Productions as a "possible Trojan Horse of American cinema." French law stipulates that no company dominated by non-European financial interests can receive any government support, and Warner's putative control over 2003 Productions (Warner has invested 46 million euros, or $53 million, in the film) is tantamount to "attempted breaking and entering." (What the AFP article doesn't mention is that Warner owns the film rights to Japrisot's book; Jeunet cannot make the film without Warner.)
Is this sort of reaction hyperbolic? That may be, but AFP also cites figures that American cinema makes up only 60% of the French market right now, as opposed to the rest of Europe, where the average is 80%. Charges of cultural imperialism may seem exaggerated, but try to imagine this happening to us in the United States: the majority of films available to you are in a foreign language and you have to watch them with subtitles or dubbing. We wouldn't be happy either.