Jan Morris’s Conundrum – a period piece?

The 2001 edition of this 1974 memoir by legendary journalist and travel writer Jan Morris on her male to female sex transition starts with the modest disclaimer that the book has aged, and it is “a period piece.” Perhaps it is but in what sense?

Source: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/06/30/jan-morris-conundrum/

Surely, it is an enjoyable read: just like its author, charming and gracious at 93, the book has aged very well. The story is relatable, it is told in highly readable style, with humour and frankness and gave a rounded picture of Morris the human being. There remains some mystery about the causes of her condition – this is one interpretation of the title. The book also leaves at least this reader uncertain whether the rigid binary of male and female is tenable or desirable. Ultimately this is neither a scientific book, queer theory tract or a political manifesto, rather a personal memoir written from the inside. It is the story of how Morris, through some inner turmoil and many external hurdles achieves what she wants (although want is perhaps not the right word): first as a small boy crouching under the piano, feeling an obscure existential unease, then ever more clearly realising its source, and finally, in her early fourties, after a lengthy process of psychological, hormonal and surgical treatment, and a legal recognition of the change, she feels to have become a woman, body, mind and soul. Morris emphasises the spiritual aspect of this change but does not get bogged down in metaphysical, religious or theoretical speculation about the natural or social aspects of sex and gender, or more specifically, what it “really” means to be a woman – a highly topical issue in current public discourse.

Of the 19 chapters of this short book (some 150 pages), at least half is about her family and professional life. And he has reason to be proud of his achievements in the military, as a journalist reporting on the conquest of the Mount Everest, numerous travel books and best-selling historical synthesis (3 volumes about the last hundred years of the British Empire, the first two written as James, the last as Jan).

What we get from this book is a rounded self-portrait of a complex personality – she is proud of being Welsh and English, she likes adventure and also gains some first-hand experience of world events such as WWII and the Suez conflict. She observes close-up the decline of the British Empire and paints memorable portraits of some of his professional contacts. These “career” chapters gently convey her conservative convictions as well. Her coservatism is more political for instance in her comparison of her work at the Times (a mixture of admiration and bemusement) and the Guardian (with a more satirical look at left radicalism). More attitudinal in the more lyrical passages about her house, village and the Welsh countryside.

However, probably most readers focus on the conundrum at the core and raison d’etre of this slight volume. Certainly, when it was first published, what most readers wanted to hear about the subjective experience of a famous transgender person but were also curious about the sensationalist aspects: what happens to the genitalia. After all, back in 1974 when the book was published, sex reassignment or transition was exceptionally rare, also somewhat dangerous medically. Especially under the circumstances it happened in Casablanca, it was a veritable adventure. And Morris provides the reader sufficient medical detail. Surely, tastes differ as to what is too much, too little or just enough. At any rate the book manages to be candid without requiring parental guidance if it comes into a young person’s hands.

To be sure, the book is a period piece in the sense that the way things happened could not have happened 10 or 20 years earlier or later. In a sense, Morris was growing up at the right time. In the 1950s she struggled but finally managed to find a psychiatrist who understood her situation. In the 1960s she struggled but finally managed to find a surgeon – true, not in Europe or America but in Morocco. While the history of gender dysphoria is long, its social and legal recognition, at least in the West has a much shorter timeline.  

These social aspects are also noteworthy. Probably the fact that the social acceptance of her new gender was relatively smooth has to do not only with traditional British middle- and upper-class tolerance towards eccentricity and respect for privacy but also with the transition being from the more privileged to the less privileged gender. Morris was well aware that in the 1970s, her transition meant giving up significant male privilege. Not only had she to leave all-male clubs or be only allowed in different rooms, but in most professional circles and public arenas, as a woman her voice was suddenly given less weight than previously. While she clearly perceives and records this, she does not pause to analyse potential political implications of this gender equality. Surely, another writer with a different character, like Edouard Louis in his The End of Eddy, would have made much more of the political implications of this personal experience. Nearly 50 years later, feminism having achieved much and since the 2010s transgender equality movements being much stronger and its conflicts with feminism more in the spotlight, male to female transition generates political controversy of a different sort, concerning, for instance, all-female protected places and public toilets. So, paradoxically, some of the relative ease of moving from the more privileged to the less privileged gender has disappeared.

Morris locates femininity not in the anatomy but spiritually. Is she ultimately committed to a sort of essentialism or pioneering something more radical? While for the most part, the book assumes the biological, social and spiritual reality of the dichotomy, there are hints that she finds the binary constricting. Although coming to this realisation probably has taken longer. The title of a much later interview say it well: “I am both“. In this sense, the book reflects an earlier phase: it does not yet speak with a clear and articulate non-binary voice.

In retrospect one could be forgiven for thinking that she benefitted from the best of both worlds, first having a heterosexual family: a loving wife and several children, then the enormous luck of her family remaining together after the transition. However lucky she has been, and she gratefully acknowledges this, it is perhaps best seen not as two successful lives. Rather, Morris, in the first half of his life, mdae the best of a miserable condition of being in the wrong body; then in the second half, lived out her life as a woman but with some important compromises. 

One topic that comes short in the book and is to some extent torn between contradictions, concerns these compromises, namely sexuality and desire. Before transition, Morris is very clearly not defining himself as homosexual or same-sex attracted: even though he has some close male relationships, apparently they do not become physical. One young man once said to Morris that he could love him if he were a woman. The torment of this then-apparent impossibility is recorded bu not much emphasised. Instead, Morris suggests that he had luck with a relatively low libido. He surely had some physical attraction to his wife Elisabeth, generating five children does not seem to have been just performing some marital duty. Surely, more could be said about the feelings and thoughts of Elisabeth, with whom Morris is now civil partner. The paucity on this topic may indicate the traditional masculine attitude and/or selfishness. But to be fair, the topic of the family is not entirely neglected but rather discussed with tact. After all, it is Morris’s perspective.

Equally, one wonders how Morris’s sexual life continued after the transition. There are some innocent anecdotes, such as one about an infatuated older taxi driver. Later, jokingly, she fantasises about an afterlife affair with Jacky Fisher, the First Sea Lord during the First World War, “the most handsome man ever”. Yet the most important passages on this are on page 136 where the language convey longing and physical desire…

One might continue guessing whether and how those desires have been fulfilled or whether indeed the familial bond turned out to be stronger than any other passion. But this is a private matter which is justifiably left undisclosed. After all, she is in control, she can choose what to reveal and in what detail. And being a seasoned journalist also helps her.

There is some reticence in the book in other respects too: a lot is described but not explained, certainly not through “deep psychology” or self-analysis. Perhaps it is not just the era and social class that set limits to what is discussed in public and how; Morris’s character is less prone to self-reflection. But what a character it is!

At the end, one cannot stop wondering about the sources of her admirable energy, resilience, good humour and overall life success. Her cheerfulness and extroversion may actually be one ingredient of her survival and mental balance – along with the supportive family, both in her childhood and after marriage, a circle of friends, and the somewhat privileged social or class position she enjoyed all her life.


Who is the Dragon?

Paul Dessau’s opera Lanzelot, rarely played, almost forgotten but now, for the 50th anniversary of its premiere, gloriously revived at the National Theatre in Weimar in cooperation with Erfurt opera, is a weird fairy tale set to music in the composer’s trademark eclectic modernist idiom.

Teaser on the Weimar theatre website

The story itself, by Heiner Müller, is “based on motives of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and the comic tale The Dragon by Yevgeni Schwarz in collaboration with Ginka Tschokalowa”.

Schwarz’s drama, in fact, was a closely followed source. Originally written in 1943, during the great patriotic war and marked by the author’s first-hand experience in Leningrad during its lengthy and brutal German siege, then banned in the Soviet Union for 17 years; it is clearly a political parable. At one level, it tells a tale, and so does the opera, of the knight Lancelot killing the dragon and thereby saving the princess Elsa; at another level, perhaps more clearly in the Schwarz piece than in the opera, a parable of fascism and heroic resistance to it. Yet the latter rather obvious reading as an antifascist political parable was probably the reason why the censors of the rigidly dictatorial GDR regime were accepting the opera as a jubilee piece celebrating the 20th anniversary of the country. And this was also at least one reason why the piece was almost forgotten after 1989 when it seemed to be an entirely time or even regime-bound piece.

To be sure, both of these are crudely simplified readings of a much more complex piece of drama, and musical drama for that. The revival is not only an opportunity to show the arguable, and sad, currency of the themes of authoritarianism, individuality and resistance but to think about other possible readings of the old Andersen fairy tale.

The director Peter Konwitschny whose many thoughtful productions I had the pleasure of seeing some 15 years ago in Hamburg, was again in his element, bringing out the universal, or at least not GDR bound, existential and political message of the piece while all the way not forgetting that theatre teaches through entertainment – and so do fairy tales too.

While there was no fairy, there was a Dragon – impersonated by the still young bass Oleksandr Pushniak; his large body as well as not malignant face was a valid incorporation of… what exactly? And this is where the interpretative problems begin. Wikipedia says that the 1965 GDR premiere of the Schwarz drama, directed by Benno Besson, was visually stunning, the three-headed dragon had wings with a span of 11.5 metres occupying the entire stage – and the piece itself was such a success that it was played over 600 times until 1981 – it was perhaps the most successful post-war German theatre production altogether. Perhaps it was this legendary stage production that kept the opera in the shadow, even though both the librettist and the composer were and still are, among the finest of their guild.

Image result for benno besson der drache

In Besson’s production of Schwarz’s political parable, the dragon is title hero – its three heads are human, thus showing how the diabolic power is embodied in the form of men. At a 1997 theatrical revival of the drama in Berlin, the dragon, a “grotesque unearthly being” was represented by a puppet. One critic in particular discussed the pros and cons of such a representation, both allowing movements and fantastic transformations, changes of size and shape, the hiatus of a forceful “real” human face may have diminished the dramatic power. In this operatic revival, as a single human generally in formal clothing, the figure of The Dragon broke with certain traditions and gave up on certain options for representing the tyrant/monster, it also opened other interpretative choices.

In fact, the history of adaptations is much richer – a Soviet film version by Mark Zacharov (1988) is among the most intelligent and thought provoking ones of the late Soviet era, and thirty years on, rather timely again.

But back to the opera and the beginning. The story itself starts in the Stone Age when a group of people are terrified by the plague, decimating the community. Then a “Medizinmann”, medical man, and his interpreter arrive, the former telling obscene and incestuous stories about his uncle, apparently in Latin, but here helpfully translated in subtitles, while the helper interpreting the pronouncements to the people in typical or stereotypical pagan priestly manner – the magician has read the heavenly sign and shows the way to salvation, or at least survival; boil the water (the rational core of the message, how to prevent cholera) but also implanting the seed of a myth, it is a dragon who has saved the people. Therefore, the dragon deserves the annual sacrifice of a maiden.

Jump to the present – and this year, Elsa, daughter of Charlemagne the dragon’s archivist, is celebrated not completely selflessly by three of her female friends who through Elsa’s marriage are spared both, allegedly, as citizens and also personally as potential brides at least for another year. Elsa, however, does not want to sacrifice herself – and expresses her resistance in some of piercingly high coloraturas, as performed by Emily Hindricks. Nor does Lanzelot (a powerful both vocal and physical presence of Máté Sólyom-Nagy) want this sacrificing to continue. And when the two catch sight of each other, they fall in love, Elsa also growing cold to her fiancé, Heinrich, the opportunist son (sung by Uwe Stickert) of the unscrupulous careerist mayor (Wolfgang Schwaninger).

© Candy Welz

In the first half of the staged version there are several confrontations between Lanzelot and the Dragon. They are also officially preparing for a duel but, in a brilliant mockery of democracy, judiciary and bureaucracy, the mayor finds a way to avoid it. Then the Dragon’s decision to set provisions of the constitution apart, cynically “in order to protect the constitution” surely has strong resonance with the German audience who, even in the East, take the Grundgesetz as a solid foundation of their political life for 70 years. The idea may also remind one of Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty.

Surely, in the original setting, the façade of the story is anti-fascist, thus the Dragon represents Nazism or right-wing populism, eventually a dictator while the misled, myth-fed and pacified relatively well-to-do Volk supports his reign. And in this staging, even though modern technology like drones is also included, the three officers wearing Nazi uniform and narrating a weird theatrical/cinematic show for the dragon, also seeking position or demonstrating their prowess in setting up fights, a dwarf also in similar uniform mock-commenting on military technique and strategy for the benefit of the leader.

Yet there is also reference to the consumerist character of this society. The existential threat, mythical or real, was in the distant past but the price they have to pay for peace and prosperity is the yearly sacrifice. The story reminding us of the anti-utilitarian parable of Ursula Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

© Candy Welz

But of course, they give up more than one of their members every year, they give up their freedom, continuously. It becomes clear that the regime is based on at least tacit popular support. Why do the people favour the dragon? For lack of initiative, imagination or humanity itself? There are powerful passages in the opera raising these fundamental questions.

Yet if the whole community takes the Dragon’s reign for granted, how can Lanzelot be immune to this and see clearly through false ideology, political myth and comfortable delusions? Is he a stranger, like in Zacharov’s film? Is he an outsider? He is surely an idealised figure: by taking responsibility, being an individual rather than a cell in an organism or cogwheel in a machine, he stands out.

The message about the consequences of general political passivism is brought up in an actualising way in a powerful scene towards the end where Lanzelot appears on a ship-like vehicle rolling in from the back of the stage: it is full of rescued migrants, in safety vests, coming to shore and being rejected.

The fight takes place after all. Lanzelot miraculously survives the fight and in fact kills the dragon, only for the story to take a weird further turn when the mayor himself, a master manipulator of mass emotions, becomes himself a celebrated victor over the dragon – what was a tragedy first, is in the second version more a farce – but in essence, it is a similar story, with another seemingly voluntary submission and rise to power. A wedding feast is prepared where the mayor, hiding a bridal veil in his tailcoat, is getting ready to marry Elsa who was saved from one despot only to be taken by the new one. The entire town ritually dispose of their uniform dragon depicting ties, and put on a new one, bidding loyalty to a new leader whose power is based on the blatant lie as to who killed the dragon. There is only one child at the feast asking frank questions about the despot (reminding of Andersen’s The Emperor is naked…). The cycle of tyrannies seems unbreakable and the cynicism of the loyal servants of the changing regimes who always turn out to be on the winning side is an easily recognisable message but it is represented effectively.

© Candy Welz

All the while, there is hope when Lanzelot appears at the end, battered but alive. And here we can think of a more psychological interpretation. He is, perhaps, the representative Human, struggling with his inner demons and also his tendency to conformism, to follow impersonal forces be their ideological or psychological, rather than growing into authentic agency? Is the monster perhaps inside, rather than outside?  

© Candy Welz

Pizza Mundial

It started as a packed and sunny Sunday in Novara. Breakfast in the kitsch hotel restaurant, painted over with seaside scenes;

Albergo Italiano

mass in the iconic Basilica di San Gaudenzio with one of the tallest towers in Europe, an epitaph honouring Petrus Lombardus born in the city ca. 1096 and a few pictorial gems;

stroll in the cold and quiet streets,

buying a Pane di San Gaudenzio as Christmas present and some salty pastry for lunch; the last proper hot chocolate in the Bar Santos run by an old couple, left here from another era, a real neighbourhood place with a charmingly shady Campari advert;

a few minutes of sunbathing in the park next to the castle, before entering to see what turned out to be an enlightening experience, the deservedly well advertised Divisionismo exhibition.

This was the first time I heard about this important group or era of Italian post-impressionist style, perhaps mostly characterised technically by the over layering of colours and the emphasis on light effects.

Then came the originial reason for my Novara visit. A real gem, the orchestrated version of the 19th century female composer Pauline Viardot’s opérette de salon, Cendrillon (published in 1903, when the author was 83). The author’s life is also quite romantic, with Maria Malibran the diva and composer her elder sister, the family responsible for the New York premiere of Don Giovanni with Lorenzo da Ponte collaborating, her relationship both personal and professional with Turgenev etc. – but the focus should be on this piece.

The performance enthralled the viewer with beautiful costumes and scenery all in elegant black and white and shades of grey in between, in baroque or 18th century opulence – some singers were better than others and the acting skills and French pronunciation were also a mixed success, for instance, the two evil sisters arias at the reception of the Prince were probably the real highlights. Wit, elegance and invention in the music transpired even through an imperfect performance and the entire idea of staging such a rarity in a smaller provincial theatre deserves applaud. There was far less than a full house audience (the second of two performances) but the mood was excellent, especially after the performance when all singers and the conductor came to mingle and take pictures with the audience who were also entertained, in pre-Christmas mood, with prosecco [water for the children and abstinent] and panettone.

Then picking up the luggage at the Albergo Italiano and walking through the crowd of the Christmas market to the station, buying two torte di Carciofi and some insalata russa for dinner, I boarded the suburban train back to Milan. Realised that I cannot eat the salad without a fork but finished one of the two delicious torte salate. In Milan, walked a pleasant stroll to Hotel Rio to pick up more luggage. Then fully loaded with a big and a small suitcase, a full rucksack, a paper box of sweets from the fancy Marchesi coffeehouse and a long umbrella, I mounted the old fashioned stylish tram 19 for a 40 min ride to Milano Lambrate (since 15 Dec the train does not leave from Centrale but Porta Garibaldi, curiously not as easily accessible as Lambrate with this much luggage).

As there was almost an hour until departure, I decided to spend it in a bar/take away on the square in front of the station. This is where the fun, a small scale anthropological close observation, began.

Entering the place through some scaffolding, there was a main counter serviced by a very effective young woman and a somewhat slower boy, the oven in the background with another woman baking new and new trays of pizza. On the left there was the bar section serviced by a man – all personnel, as far as I could tell, from Latin America. There was quite a variety of food and drinks mostly to take away or to eat, standing, at the narrow counters along the window or at a tall narrow table in front of the bar. Judging from the atmosphere, most generally, the place could have easily been in the outskirts of any southern or eastern European city. The most popular product were the pizza slices, most of them for 2€50, there was only one type, the siciliana without mozzarella, that one at the ridiculously cheap price of 1€20. The pizzas were baked in large square metal trays in the oven and brought out to be kept warm on straw or reed table runners. Each pizza was sliced into 12 smaller rectangles. When a piece was served to be eaten on the spot it was cut further with a sharp metal tool into 16 bite size pieces – if done properly, the last operation required 2 cuts along the shorter side and because of the length, two times two along the longer side. To do this effectively, quickly and energetically, while collecting money, remembering the change, collecting and memorising the next order was no easy task. The place was generally busy only short moments of rest possible – it was used to quickly clean the counter from morsels and fallen pieces, grease, to put the empty trays in order etc but also to furtively eat something in 2 or 3 minutes – it is always interesting to observe in simpler eateries, what the personnel is eating, usually they get the best bites from the cook or in this case, have the liberty to choose for themselves. In brief, to be on top of things required skills but also dedication apart from the continuous mental presence for long hours. The woman excelled at everything – the cutting, the general speed of service, the funny banter with the second woman who arrived shortly before 9pm for the night shift…

The bar was much less busy also because canned coke and beer and even bottled water was available together with the pizza. In fact, there were some very affordable deals which included a free drink with any 3 slices of pizza. The canned beer there was called Poretti – how they thought to benefit from the vague association with the good brand Moretti, I am not sure, if they wanted at all; clearly this was not the place for brand awareness let alone brand loyalty or refined taste. Thus, although occasional customers ordered a bottled beer from the bar, as I did, it was much quieter there and the waiter found time to sort out bigger issues, getting some decoration ready for Christmas, and he also had time to take out his smartphone. He also caringly assisted the poor old man with a sweet tooth who bought two or three soggy muffins, probably at an end-of-day discount.

The clientele was perhaps the most interesting to observe – local working class people having a quick and cheap meal after work, some less fortunate local figures too: smelly, homeless, drunk, or mentally disabled people walking in, getting their special discount, some kind words, occasional courtesy service such as storing a piece of luggage for them for a few hours behind the counter, etc. The regulars new the prices and prepared the coins already, they called the girl and the guy behind the counter by first name, e.g. when coming back and asking to warm up the piece in the microwave etc.  Naturally, there were also the travellers who, like me, had a half hour to kill or the furtive meal to get it before a long possibly overnight journey. Generally better dressed, sometimes feeling out of place, they finished quickly.

In contrast, it was fun to observe how the four people, visibly two middle aged couples, probably from the Philippines or somewhere else in SE Asia, stood at the narrow table next to me and sharing a meal, created communal feeling around themselves and made the rather sordid meal into a merriment, generally enjoying a good time of relaxation after work. Like many others, they were clearly regulars and felt at home, also because of the deep-fried seafood and other smaller snacks reminding them of their home meals. 

One was tempted to imagine the new, clean, shiny version of the place (there is one online about the façade, not covered by scaffolding) – how it looked back in 1982 when the world football championship was organised (I am not sure why I have mentally settled on this year, instinctively, perhaps because it was won by Italy?) – by 2019 there was a tiredness in the décor, the signs and some greasy dust sat on many surfaces but everything was functioning and in all probability served the neighbourhood well – and as for the transit travellers, there was nothing really to complain of. Even foreigners on TripAdvisor give favourable comments.

There was also the issue of the plastic forks I had to solve. Forks were added to the food of the appropriate sort from inside the counter so impossible to simply pick up. Having finished my Moretti beer and after standing there with an empty bottle for a few minutes, I got the Eastern European angst of being liable to be politely asked to leave as not consuming, not to take up so much space so to speak – which I did, given the number of bulky pieces I was carrying. So, I used a short moment of quieter business and bought a piece of pizza siciliana for takeaway. I eagerly asked for an extra forchetta, assuming it does not come with a full i.e. uncut slice. But as I was happy to discover half an hour later, sitting on my bunk sleeper bed, to quickly finish my dinner, there was a plastic fork, and thus everything needed. The fork and napkin were put, this time by the boy I previously judged from a certain distance as relatively slow and clumsy, into the paper bag next to the slice, so easily and effectively that I haven’t even noticed when and how it happened.

Porgy and post-colonialism, Bess and battered-woman-syndrome

It was pouring rain in London the whole Saturday afternoon and evening. Lord Henry invited his actor friend to the London Coliseum to see English National Opera’s opulent production of Porgy and Bess. They agreed that it was a visual treat, an impressive musical experience, and a thought-provoking story.

The centre of the stage (design: Michael Yeargan) is Catfish Row, a fishing tenement in Charleston, South Carolina, wooden houses, fully furnished but without walls, surrounding a square. The whole construction can rotate and bring the viewer to the waterfront, with fishing boats and excursion ships. There is a 50 person strong all-black cast, in 1920s costumes, in short, this is a full-scale operatic performance of a “folk opera”.

(c) Tristram Kenton

Gershwin’s music, with its successful eclecticism of jazz, blues and Spirituals, popular hits and powerful choir scenes worked effectively. It is hard to cast a full range of truly exceptional singers and there were clearly stronger and weaker ones, yet in the two gentlemen’s not-fully-professional judgement, the overall musical quality was very high. While the show started with a rather disappointing rendering of the evergreen Summertime [the link leads to an informative performance and arrangement history of the song], perhaps the strongest performance was American baritone Eric Greene’s who played and sung, in short: personified a forceful, life-affirming, energetic and tender Porgy.

(c) Tristram Kenton

Porgy’s story is based on DuBose Heyward’s now little-known 1925 novel, then stage play, with the protagonist, a “crippled beggar” in the centre – inspired by a real life figure in early 20th century Charleston, famously moving around in a goat-pulled cart. The story is set in the close-knit, subsistence-level Afro-American Gullah community, fully imbued in a patriarchal and ethnically coloured Christianity, with traditional ideas of gender roles and family relations, and hints to the reality of extra-marital sex and prostitution, everyday life of hard work made easier by joyful singing, community outings, and less endearingly, gambling, alcohol and drug-addiction. Set in this milieu, the disabled and thus unemployed Porgy, generally accepted and respected but not a fully equal member of the community, first helps to and then falls for the fallen woman, Bess.
Psychologically, Bess is the most complex and interesting, and perhaps the only truly relatable character. With a troubled past, various uncertain and unstable attachments, attracted to both Crown’s physical strength and sexual energy, and Porgy’s emotional support and stable domesticity, she finally opts for an uncertain future, represented by Sporting Life’s doubtful promises of glamour and artificial extasy. In the very last scene, 
Porgy sets out to find her. 
Surely, it must have been a brave political act, in 1934, to write a mainstream American opera (as in Gershwin’s ambition this is not “just a musical”) based in a Southern black community. But what shall we think of it in 2018? Surely, the libretto goes out of its way to avoid condescension. But how much of the story is still stereotypical and chichéd? How much is exotic, Orientalist, depicting the noble savage? The two gentlemen could not agree on this.
At the end, how important a question is this, given that most operas are less then perfect, dramatically speaking, and often highly problematic, morally or politically speaking?

Peaks and Districts: ETO in Buxton

Händel’s Radamisto, his first opera written for the English audience, performed in its second version in Buxton tonight is the main production of English Touring Opera‘s autumn baroque season. Baroque opera, so one expects a plot full of intrigue, love polygons, treason, and less excitingly: fidelity, virtue and honour. There is no disappointment on this front: James Conway directed a moving drama where, although one expect a happy ending, it is often quite hard to imagine how life-threatening tensions can be reconciled. The 6 singers (some minor roles were merged) do an excellent job, most of them not only muscially but theatrically as well, and this is no small feat, because apart from some extreme emotions, there are some tricky acrobatics to accomplish. At some point in the original second act (towards the end of the first half in this prodction), Radamisto and Zenobia, Armenian prince and princess escape into the hills, then she jumps off a mountain to commit suicide…

Then the next morning, Lord Henry meets her in a Starbucks at Stockport train station, congratulates her to the brilliant performance and it turns out that both are about to take the next train to London – this is, as they say nowadays: “priceless”. This is, of course, what happened off-stage. On stage, in dramatic time, her attempted suicide is followed by what is perhaps the best known aria of the entire opera: Radamisto’s lament over the death of his beloved, Ombra cara… 
Overall, what matters is that the mezzo Katie Bray was the most convincing of the six singers. 

In spite of the warnings and request for indulgence before the show, countertenor William Towers achieves a powerful Radamisto, in a title role which itself is of a rather powerless man who is saved and triumphs more due to circumstance and the doings of others than his own strength. Even though not in top form, Towers has a beautiful voice and an ideal stage presence for this role of the vulnerable emotional prince.

The opera house itself is one of those Edwardian buildings that can be admired in its seemingly almost unchanged splendour… although reading the leaflet about the building’s history suggests otherwise. The most interesting trivia is that Buxton being a spa town, the stage is over a source, and if the electric pump is unoperative, the stage is flooded by the famous, and delicious, Buxton mineral water.  

The pun of the introductory conversation before the opera was: if you like the performance, donate generously. If you don’t and you think we need to improve, donate even more generously. Lord Henry was entertained!

“From Byrd to Bees” via Moondog and Tom Cats: the New London Chamber Ensemble in Hull

This, I mean the part in quotation marks, was the title of today’s concert held in the Middleton Hall by Hull Chamber Music Society. When the audience entered, two musicians were already standing at two distant corners of the auditorium, then two others entered through the front side doors, and the fifth came on the stage. They started a dancing march across the room, finally ending up all on stage, while performing a transcription of William Byrd’s Pavane and Galliard. Five excellent, playful, spirited wind players of the New London Chamber Ensemble, with this refreshing start into an unconventional evening, full of rarely played pieces, and overall an almost childish enjoyment in making beautiful or irritating, soothing or shocking sounds — as one of them reminded us, quoting John Cage at one point: “all sound is music”.

Yet, there was definitely planning and structure to the evening: after the Renaissance introitus, in the first half, we heard three 20th century American composers, the youngest (Stephen Montague) living in the UK. The title of his piece (Thule Ultima) refers to the farthermost limits of the Roman Empire. Yet the second half of the concert brought us to the three other borders or peripheries of Europe, south (Berio), north (Nielsen) and east (RIsky-Korsakov). Yes, the “bee” in the title referred to the unbeatable evergreen as finale.

Within the “Byrd – bee” framing, two more conventional wind quintet pieces, actually written for a wind quintet, provided ample evidence of the musicians mastery of characterisation, virtuosity, expressiveness. The second, Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, invoking the languor of a hot lazy midday, perhaps in a garden, was a joy for fans of his late Romantic style, especially touching were Melanie Ragge’s oboe solos. Before the piece, to my much pleasant surprise, she also recited, beautifully, Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop”, another reminiscence of a summer day.

The before last piece, Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet op 43 is relatively rarely heard in concerts but the ensemble has it as a key element in their repertoire and also recorded it. Especially interesting is the last movement, with a solemn chorale-like melody and more than a dozen variations, equally showcasing the character of the individual instruments and Nielsen’s inventive combination of the possibilities of contrasting, competing and concerting duos and trios among the five.

The most surprises and laughter were, however due to the remaining three gems of light spirited music. Moondog was a self-taught blind musician from Sasnak, i.e. Kansas, well known on the streets of New York City in the 40s and 50s, often near Carnegie Hall or the Lincoln Centre, where he befriended the likes of Benny Goodman, Philipp Glass and Leonard Bernstein, who all admired his minimalism. Glass, in fact [well, let’s have this checked first in his memoirs!], once claimed that he learned more from Moondog [born as Louis Thomas Hardin, died and buried in Munster, Germany], than from anoyone at Juillard.  Moodog’s music was much inspired by the noises of the streets of New York but in its simplicity it sometimes also reaches into the spiritual. A good example of this was his short piece, “Bird of Paradise“, a real gem or variation and repetitiveness and imitatio naturae, perhaps my favourite from the entire concert.

But wait, perhaps it was another one. We were reminded of Luciano Berio’s avantgarde and humour by his early, rather neo-classical sounding “Opus Number Zoo, children’s play for wind quintet” (1951, rev. 1970). It comprises four miniature movements – based on seemingly charming but potentially disturbing prose poems/fairy tales of the animal kingdom (text by Rhoda Levine, children’s book writer, opera director and choreographer). The stories, of the Fox eating the hen who notices too late that game is over, the Fawn lamenting the destruction of the world for no reason, the Old Mouse missing out on the party, and Omar and Bartholomew, the two macho Tomcats comparing and then losing their attributes of pride, are recited by one member of the quintet and accompanied, hilariously, sometimes tenderly or compassionately, by the tunes of the four others, and the roles change frequently, even mid-word. Some of the interpretations available online refer to Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, Prokofjev‘s Peter and the Wolf and Orwell’s Animal farm (after all, we are in 1951) as similar, though longer, compositions, yet one must listen very carefully to the texts and let the music shock you, to get the idea why.

The most unruly, perhaps even anarchic piece [ I haven’t checked the scores to see how much of what happened on stage is notated, although comparing various video recordings give you an idea that some of it is left for the musicians] was “Thule Ultima for woodwind quintet” (1999). Stephen Montague indeed took the wind instruments to the utmost limits of the possibilites of their sonoric possibilities – what we hear, until the very last tunes, are only the reed and brass mouthpieces, producing, to me at least wholly unexpectedly creeking, squeeking sounds. All along, the musicians were following a sort of choreography of a burlesque – it almost felt like watching an old silent movie of slapstick humour of gestures, while the musical accompaniment is produced by the actors themselves!

The Chamber Music series at Hull is a heroic enterprise  – it’s a small miracle that it is able to continue in this city. With most members and concertgoers in their 80s, and the Middleton Hall’s steep flights of stairs, even physical access difficult, not to mention generational and financial sustainability. Yet, this old fashioned genre of chamber music concerts is alive and well. Excellent musicians are coming to play, and as this concert showed, somewhat unexpectedly,  the enthusiasm of the ensemble was contagious. The music brought genuine joy and laughter on the faces of the audience, irrespective of age. Chamber music can be lyrical, meditative, but also energising or irreverently funny.

Nature and culture…

There have been many sarcastic jokes about the current UK City of Culture displaying less culture than an average Petri dish. But was Londonderry any better?

After all, it was in Hull that the bicentenary of Armitage Shanks and the centenary of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was jointly celebrated with a quirky exhibition. Then in September 2018, the art objects were auctioned off and it was both saddening and pleasant to see the low turnout. I was able to acquire some beautiful and in part thought-provoking pieces.

Then a more recent walk from Holderness Road to Pearson Park …Screenshot 2018-10-31 10.23.23

revealed some spectacular buildings, partly in rot, partly in demolition, partly bravely withstanding time and the elements.

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The Grade II listed British Extracting Company building has been celebrated as a beautiful derelict building and explored from the inside in this video.

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All this ambivalence about “culture”, however, simply drifts away when, one evening, you board Pride of Hull in King George’s Dock, and look back on the river, with the city and Humber bridge in the distance, waiting to sail off…

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Everything in moderation

Hard to decide whether it is too much exhibitionism for the former Dean of Rochester Cathedral to go on a blind date at First Dates Hotel, just three years after coming out and leaving priesthood – it is certainly something that (the real fictional) Lord Henry would have loved to see for the wrong reasons, being the salacious cynical character he was. For anyone else, this episode actually gives a glimpse into a middle-aged man’s emotional maturation, and agreeing to do this in public is commendable bravery.

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Did this make me a fan of this show or of reality TV in general? Hardly. But just like with wine, the odd small portion feels good.


Value for money

About a month ago, at a final sale in a charity shop on Whitefriargate, I bought 5 books for £1. One of them is the memoir of Hull-born actor Tom Courtenay. Actually, it is a narrated collection of the letters his mother wrote him to London during his studies and the first few years of his career, between 1955 and 1962, the year of her premature death. Reading just a few pages at night before sleep or in the morning after waking up, gives an emotional boost, variably heartwarming or sad. Apart from the social atmosphere of the fishing and dock worker community on Hessle road and the working class in Hull more generally, glimpses at the trials and tribulations of a famous artist as a young man, the real treasures of the book are those clumsy but artful, funny, touching paragraphs by “Mam” which show the poetry of trivial everyday life events, ambitions never fulfilled and a hard-working life shadowed by illness and impending early death. Yet this excerpt shows the gentleness of the father-son relationship.20181026_135839

I shall return to the term in the title – it is worth serious discourse analysis how it has become so widespread in public language of the UK in recent decades. Some cases show the absurdity or frivolity of talking about value and money in one breath.

The pleasures of (go)ogling

Start with a random article in the wonderful philosophy magazine Aeon on the limited relevance of consent in sexual ethics and politics – actually a taster for the author’s forthcoming book on the same topic.

There are some good arguments there. And consent is a topic I have been thinking about and touching upon time and again in my research. The legal understanding of this key aspect of human agency is not just different in law than in morality or common sense; it is also domain specific. Consent has a different legal meaning in, say, contractual (business), family (marriage) or criminal (rape) contexts. This article opens new perspectives on this issue and at the very least makes a strong case that consent has a far more limited role in determining what is right or acceptable or should not be interfered with, than many of us had thought.

The article is illustrated by a (cropped) painting by Károly Ferenczy, representing two wrestling men, a mild visual parallel to the strong fable the article opens with. A simple google search (for “Károly Ferenczy wrestling”) brings up a number of images which are taken from a 2012 blog entry by Hungarian art historian Nóra Veszprémi (currently at the University of Birmingham, as another simple google search would confirm).

Artwork by Károly Ferenczy, Wrestlers III, Made of Oil on canvas

This blog entry is a small revelation – it confirms what I have been feeling and thinking for a while now, every time I walk through the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest or look at certain reproductions: there is, what is called, “homosexual eroticism” in many of Ferenczy’s paintings. At least this is a serious academic hypothesis by Judit Boros, the curator of a retrospective exhibition back in 2011-12 and a co-editor of Ferenczy’s collected letters. There is little biographical evidence but some good starting points for legitimate speculation. Namely, Ferenczy’s late work, with circus artists, wrestlers but also earlier pieces of the human nude, allows for a queer reading.

Ferenczy: Orpheus (1894)

And from here, it is easy to jump to a further blog entry, originally written as accompanying material for that exhibition, especially if one reads Hungarian. It provides details on one of the few biographical hints at “uranian” or “oxonian” interests – how Ferenczy responded to Nijinsky (there are many other interesting details on the links between Nijinsky and Hungary). After seeing the dancer as the faun in the legendary performance with the Ballets Russes in Budapest, he wrote an incredibly detailed, anatomically precise report to his son. The letter contains almost nothing else but this report on Nijinsky’s body – and Ferenczy is candidly affirmative about this exclusive focus of his gaze.

Vaslav Nijinsky, 1912, dancing the Faun. Photograph by Adolf de Meyer.