Thursday, 12 December 2013

On the day they booed Zuma

...I was summoned with three hours' notice to the BBC News 24 studios. The reason was loosely connected, I guess, with that surprising incident at what turned out to be a big party to celebrate Nelson Mandela's life (and incidentally I can't see under such circumstances why the hypocritical Daily Mail, glimpsed this time in the back of the cab they sent to ferry me back and forth, is at it again, condemning Obama's 'selfie', aligned with glamorous Danish PM and not so glam Cam, after he'd given such a wonderful speech).

So to the cause of my command performance. There had been booing at La Scala - che sorpresa - following what looked like a rather inventive new production of La traviata by hit-and-miss genius Dmitri Tcherniakov, and the news folk seemed most interested in the fact that tenor Piotr Beczala (pictured below by Johannes Ifkovits) had also got a boo or two. Full focus was on him, apparently, because he Facebooked that he'd never return to sing in Italy after that experience. 13/12 Inside information tells me that it happened because he wouldn't pay a claque to cheer him, so they booed instead. I did raise this possibility on the telly, but dismissed it because it seemed unlikely that, say, he and Damrau could possibly have been at loggerheads - and the claque phenomenon usually involves one leading singer hiring folk to diss the other.

I explained that as I hadn't been in Milan or at the livescreening I couldn't comment authoritatively, but they wanted me there all the same for a live sequence at 4.17pm and drummed up George Loomis, who had attended, to appear in the Paris studio. He looked comfortable there with a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower, whereas I was a bit overawed by the new television centre headquarters behind the much more familiar (to me) old Broadcasting House. My own shots are all a bit fuzzy as I didn't want to disturb with flash.

There were hordes of people around reception, plus paparazzi outside waiting for Katy Perry (about whom I know only the name and what she does). Then I was whisked down a corridor overlooking the largest newsroom in Europe - impressive and Metropolis-y - towards the studio where Tim Willcox was sitting behind a familiar desk.

To makeup first, and a chat with a lovely lady who told me how they're all on freelance contrasts, shocking. And then to the vast studio where there were only a man who pinned on my mike, two cameramen and Tim. I never spoke to him properly, got a nod as I sidled into a chair beside him and double-checked the pronunciation of 'Beczala' (Bechawa). I'd hoped there would be more about Tcherniakov, but it was mostly about tenors and why this one was booed.

From the excerpts on YouTube, I've no idea (why): Beczala, as I know, has style and musicianship most tenors with voices anywhere near as good as his completely lack. 'De' miei bollenti spiriti' is lovely, and done while rolling out pastry with Damrau's Violetta, a perfect image of domesticity (though as with other supposed soliloquies in the opera Tcherniakov breaks the rules and gives the singer a springboard for reaction). If anything's to be criticised it would be the heavier of conductor Daniele Gatti's tempi, though the Italians don't seem to have noticed those.

Despite pushing the voice dangerously in the public denunciation of Violetta, Beczala didn't crack - though he does on a wicked clip from a 2012 production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette in a YouTube series called 'Perle nere' - 'black pearls'. Botha is on there too so Beczala is in fine company; it happens to the best. I want to see the whole of the show now - especially intrigued why Damrau is fancy-wigged as Jean Harlow in Act One and as 1970s Bette Midler in II.ii when the essential look is contemporary.

Anyway, I was walking back to the taxi from the rather intimidating TV HQ when nice co-ordinator Victoria Sill ran after me. BBC World Service had seen the live couple of minutes, liked it and wondered if I'd come back in to do a radio slot. Great: this would at least double my earnings (£50 'disturbance fee' for the telly). Typically, this interview was more relaxed and I had fun chatting to Newshour presenter Tim Franks.

Wonder if anyone saw the News 24 snippet - I just have, since Victoria very efficiently sent me the film without my even having to ask - but the radio chunk, neatly edited, is downloadable here (my bit's right at the end of the 'US Cuba Handshake' instalment). Probably the iPlayer version is the better long-term bet as the big programmes tend to be up for a year. For the next two and a half days, there's also Radio 3 iPlayer access to my chat with treasured colleague Marina Frolova-Walker and Music Matters presenter Tom Service on Stephen Walsh's excellently written but oddly marketed/presented book about Musorgsky and the Five.

Not much to add about mighty and compassionate Madiba, except that while dining on superb Indian dishes at friends Anupam and Paul on Sunday I brought up Peter Tatchell's equivocal response - which was that Mandela was unquestionably a great man, but from the great we expect so much, and he could have done more when it came to speaking out against Mugabe -  apparently he never did - and dealing with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. To which Chris Smith, aka Baron Smith of Finsbury, the first out gay MP and so a bit of a hero of mine*, responded that the day after he'd proclaimed his own HIV status, he got a message asking him to call Nelson Mandela and on ringing the number found the man himself on the end of the line. No other major figure showed that kind of solidarity at the time.

When I emailed Chris to ask if he'd mind my mentioning and/or naming him - and of course he didn't - he added: 'one of the things that had prompted me to say something publicly...was his speech after his son's death when he said we can only defeat HIV by being open about it, and talking about it'.

That personal touch sounds typical - lovely slot in the middle of Tuesday's World Service coverage - yes, I'm a fan of that station, for all its recent changes - where the daughter of a white activist remembers Mandela not only coming to their Camden home at the time of her father's funeral, but staying for tea and interrupting a speech to say hello to a neighbour he knew. At last tears did come to my eyes after all the generalised - if well deserved - eulogising. There's a fine tribute from colleague Jillian Edelstein on The Arts Desk, describing her experience of photographing Mandela in 1997. Here's her shot of a man we usually see smiling and extrovert rather than pensive.

10.10am: Jillian just emailed back with another image, which appeared in today's Guardian. Of course we need to see both sides of the great man.

Well, he is gone, but this great one isn't, and continues to do active good in the world. As, I think we're agreed but with greater reservations, is Time Magazine's figure of the year, humble Francis.

*Speaking out against a possible ban on gay employees in Rugby, he said: 'Good afternoon, I'm Chris Smith, I'm the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. I'm gay, and so for that matter are about a hundred other members of the House of Commons, but they won't tell you openly'.


Laurent said...

Love your recollection of moments and names, you do have a talent for placing events in context.
As for the La Scala booing incident, it is all a bit sad really and one has to wonder about such behaviour, what does it really achieve.

David said...

In this case the publicity it achieved may have encouraged more people to view the production - I believe it's available on Arte, an excellent set-up, for a couple more weeks - and from what I saw that looked very interesting indeed. But Tcherniakov, for all his perception, can skew things too far from the intended context. Vedremo.

Anyway, the main point is that booing has always happened in Italy and it always will - if the onward juggernaut of cuts leaves any opera houses standing.

Susan Scheid said...

Such a wonderful "minute-by-minute" account of your day! With the caveats you both noted, the Musorgsky book sounds interesting, though I don't dare add another thing to my reading pile right now. (It's a funny thing about gaining a bit of knowledge, it makes you even more aware of all you don't yet know. It's only through learning more about Prokofiev and Shostakovich that I knew about The Five, and now I want to know more about them, too.) Listening to your comments on the booing was fun, and I enjoyed it even more knowing the back story of your being called to the BBC on short notice to weigh in. Your story about Mandela is lovely, as are the photographs. (As an aside, The Bakkhai evening was splendid. I hope to say a little about that over my way, when and if time permits. Lots of dashing around with visitors at the moment.)

David said...

Ah yes, the Christmas reading pile. I don't know where to start (though I have to finish a rather quirky big Wagner biography first). On a bit of an E T A Hoffmann jag at the moment, stirred by that book's reminder of how much Wagner owed to the great fantasist, though he tried to cover his tracks. The two-volume Serapionsbruder beckons - in fact I'm off to the evil Amazon empire to buy that now (though trying to buy presents in proper bookshops, like Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, of which there should be a copy in every home.

By the way, if you think that was 'minute by minute', I spared readers the final test of the day - to teach Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ to my BBCSO/City Lit students. Had to more or less wing it since the BBC visit ate into preparation time, but what an enchanting and uncharacteristic work it is. Though I do love the personal, lyrical Berlioz best.

Can't wait to read your Bakkhai report.

David Damant said...

One fault in the Tatchell criticism of Mandela, on poverty, and in the criticism of the economic policy of his successors, is that it is not realised that NO ONE UNDERSTANDS MACRO ECONOMICS. If governments did so, they would avoid economic problems which - as they well know - would bring them votes. I wish that all politicians the media would emphasise this. In South Africa the political questions were complex but susceptible to reason (as shown by Mandela and de Klerk) The economic problems remain a mystery - we need 50 years and another Keynes

There is also the idea that the important thing in the face of evil is to speak out and distance oneself from the evil, whereas the correct approach in each case is to study what action - whether speaking out or working in other ways - will have the best result. Anyway, what would speaking out against Mugabe have achieved? "I brook no doubt of my mastery, I rule until I die" I would almost argue there is a certain degree of moral self indulgence in the attitude " I myself am not mixed up in these evil matters" - as in some cases engagement can be the right and moral method. The President of South Africa was under pressure to speak out against Mugabe at the same time as Mandela ( who did make a careful comment) - but what the President was doing ( and who knows how far Mandela was involved?) was persuading Mugabe to form a coalition... how successful that was can be debated but it was obviously the right thing to try

Tatchell has very poor judgement. When Leo Abse died, Tatchell critised him for pushing through his 1960s bill legalising homosexuality without covering more ground towards the freedoms we have now. What a foolish lack of understanding. It was a tremendous and splendid effort for Abse to get as far as he did.

One very serious fault in modern operatic productions is that they often completely loose the social norms embodied at the time of the drama. These productions take away for example from the often enormous distance between princes ( Aeneas, Almaviva)and ordinary people, and thereby lose that dimension of the plot - especially if you put them into modern dress. And in the 19th century ladies and gentlemen ( even if from the demi-monde) would not sit down in the kitchen to roll pastry. The assumptions involved in this action were therefore inappropriate

David said...

Well studied, Sir David. I do think Tatchell's criticisms these days are fairly couched and well written. He always works from the standpoint of 'well done, but could do more' which I think is fair from someone who is himself prepared to go to extremes. Admittedly that's not what politicians do, but still...

I'd say that in Wagner there are NO social norms, least of all in Parsifal (though it's still a male hierarchy). Stagings of his operas work best, in my experience, when liberated from any specific time and place, including the present. But perhaps, if you don't mind my saying this, you should not speak whereof you have not seen, and are not prepared to see.

David Damant said...

It's not what politicians are ABLE to do. They cannot always " do more" The second rate and - sadly - the usual politicians may adopt flexibility as a norm ("the art of the possible") but a great or even a partly great politician will steer through the mine fields and achieve what can be achieved. And very often the mines are laid down by people like Tatchell who have to be out-manoeuvred . To do that and still keep the best aims in view is the mark of a statesman. On de-colonisation, Macmillan " pointed in one direction and acted in another" - thus finessing the imperialists. That is what politics ( or human nature)is about, unfortunately

My dear David - you bring up Wagner - you know my views. Dangerous in any dress. And anyway a special case to which I did not intend my remarks to apply. But I will listen tomorrow with eagerness.

David said...

Agreed. Look at poor Obama, hands tied by House of Representatives (and the drones issue complicates that one). Nevertheless I still think him an honourable man, and I don't mean that ironically like Mark Antony in the text which meant so much to Mandela in prison...

Reading the German Wagner biography I maybe understand the man better but dislike him more - and, pace Meistersinger, I realize maybe he didn't have the best grasp of human complexity.

David Damant said...

Your reference to Obama recalls to my mind a President who did know how to manage Congress - Franklin Roosevelt. If one reads the story of how he handled the New Deal, and the War before Pearl Harbour, one can be almost exhausted by what might be seen as his deviousness. But as a result he succeeded in both cases. It is wonderful to find a politician who has these skills without being corrupted. It is perhaps made more difficult these days when everyone in public life has to deal also with the 24/7 media.

David said...

You're referring to Franklin D, I presume, rather than Barack? The present tenses of 'It is wonderful to find a politician who has these skills' made me pause to wonder.

David Damant said...

Yes I meant FDR. Lyndon Johnson also could and did handle Congress well ( having been there) but his period of office was overhung by the question of Vietnam