Sunday, July 3, 2011

My Log 265: I become a culture vulture and am exposed to the secret world of European opera and song

Fireworks to celebrate the launch of the Dubro...Image by Stuart Pinfold via Flickr
Fireworks celebrate the launch of the Dubrovnik summer festival

In the two weeks I have spent in Croatia I have become a culture vulture, for my host has dragged me to no fewer than six musical/entertainment events, only one of which I would have even considered had I been in Ottawa.

Last night’s event was particularly memorable, for it was held in the open courtyard of one of Dubrovnik’s most regal buildings during a heavy rainfall, the first they have had here in months, and both orchestra and audience were obliged to huddle under the verandahs surrounding the courtyard while the fiddlers fiddled on, and the seven singers gathered together from all over Europe, ran through a programme of favorite opera songs.

The orchestra was that of the Opera and Ballet of the Albanian National Theatre, and the singers were obliged to make themselves heard over the incessant rattle of the rain pouring down from the overhead spouting on to the stones of the courtyard. Two sopranos from Poland and one from Russia had to suffer the indignity of their long gowns getting wet around the hems, but they maintained their sangfroid admirably, and as far as I can tell their form was maintained to the satisfaction of the knowledgeable audience. They were aided in their programme of stuff from Puccini, Bizet, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Donizetti, by four tenors and baritones from Mexico, Columbia, Austria and Croatia, the whole thing conducted by an Albanian conductor and a local one who presides over this summer festival.

All of these performers were just names to me, unknown names, since there is probably no one less knowledgeable about classical music than me. They did provide most informative and complete programme notes, however, which led one into a whole world of European academies where these performers had studied (from the age of four some of them, poor little sods), because all of them had played in opera and concert halls in every small town and several major cities in Europe, it seemed. The whole ensemble presented to my innocent eyes and ears was of a huge underground of classical music that has been sawing away, regardless of whether the government was communist, nationalist, conservative or fascist: all of them seem to have eagerly supported these particular arts.

That got me going on one of my premiere hobby horses: that in all of these subsidized entities, the poor pay through their taxes, but the events are designed to be enjoyed only by the rich, for the poor could not possibly afford the ticket prices.

This is why I have always objected to paying for entrance to the museums and concert halls in Ottawa, when, after all, my taxes have already gone to establish these palaces of culture, and they should thereafter be available to me at no, or very minimal cost. This is not how it works: opera and ballet are the arts of a small elite. The only opera company I ever saw --- I have not seen many, I am sure readers will not be surprised to learn --- that I wholeheartedly approved was one in China whose job it was to take Peking opera around the communes of the particular county in which they operated. All performances were full, the halls packed with peasants in their sweatshirts, after a long day in the fields. The audiences paid close attention, reading the modern translations of the medieval Chinese language used in the operas, that was projected down the side of the stage. Oddly enough, these audiences never applauded, even when it was over, but just got up and left, although they seemed throughout the performance to enjoy it thoroughly.

Okay, that was last night, and part of the Dubrovnik summer festival, which has so far, in a mere two weeks, exposed me to the conducting talents of four separate conductors, None of them is household names (and even if they were, I probably would never have heard of them) so I will abstain from commenting, except to say that one of them, a Russian, seemed to be behind the beat most of the time, one of them, an Indonesian, who gave an energetic, rousing performance and pulled a remarkable variety of faces in the process, and the two last night were elderly men who were models of decorum and modesty in face of the orchestra hey commanded.

Most of the other performances were at an event called Le Petit Festival du Theatre, which took place also in an open air arena, the weather here usually being settled and warm enough to support these outside experiences.

There were two notable events at this festival. The first was a recital by a Yemini singer from Jerusalem who greeted each of us at the door as we filed into the arena, her purpose apparently being to establish some kind of rapport between herself and her audience. She had some obscure purposes, which were never adequately explained, but seemed to have to do with her wish that we should all shake off our outer snake skin and get down to the real us. To accomplish this she asked us to do all manner of things, such as touching the top of our head with our hands, shimmering and shaking so as to loosen that proverbial snake skin, thinking of a word, and, when asked, declaiming the word so everyone could hear. (I was sorely tempted to tell her my word: crap! But didn’t want to put a kibosh on the show).

I told myself, however, that when the moment came that she asked us to hold hands, I would be outa there. And that is exactly what happened when the request came. I headed for the door. I have a constitutional inability to lay myself open to any pseudo-religious revivalist who happens along, preferring to keep myself cautiously at a distance from all proselytizers, especially those who do not fully reveal their purposes.

However, the next night was a concert I thoroughly enjoyed, because, of course, it was the only one that came anywhere near my limited experience of music. A young woman from Paris named Laetitia de Fombelle performed a number of songs in English and/or French which enabled her to reflect upon life, love, its betrayal and fulfillment. This is the well-trodden territory of the French chanteuse, and when after the show I congratulated her on her performance and remarked that I was surprised that she sang a Jacque Brel song inEnglish, she said she was unable to sing it in French because it had become far too personal to her. Notable, to me, in this perfromance was the contrast between her effortless credibility and comfort when singing in French, and the somewhat strained, rather tense atmosphere when she sang in English. Her choice of songs was not hackneyed, and she got a rousing reception from a packed house. This sort of culture, feeding into my lifelong love of the French and American popular song, I could take every night of the week, if it was available.

So there it is: my cultural level is being heightened and improved to such an extent that I think I am about to embark on a protest, and refuse to be dragooned into anything else that I could classify as culture vulturism.

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