Monday, March 7, 2011

The Disease that Dare Not Speak its Name

I have always felt that it is perfectly legitimate for a writer to write about other writers.  However, now that I have my gigs, I figure I have to be more careful in addressing the work of “fellow critics,” many of whom I now know personally.  Thus, when I write about something I have read “on the local front,” it tends to have less to do with the immediate content and more to do with the surrounding context.

This was certainly the case when I decided it was important to call attention to Joshua Kosman’s disciplined examination of the “extra-musical issues” surrounding the recent visit by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  (As an aside I should note that I did not attend any of the Berkeley concerts by this orchestra.  This was because I had a full schedule in San Francisco, and I venture out of the city limits only on rare occasions.  Having heard the Vienna Philharmonic in Suntory Hall on one of my trips to Japan, I chose not to let their visit be one of those “rare occasions.”)  The point in this case was that, since Kosman’s article was not about a particular performance, nor was it really about music, I felt that it deserved attention for what it had to say.

In a similar manner I would like to endorse the approach that Jason Victor Serinus took in writing about Zheng Cao in his piece for San Francisco Classical Voice, because this, too, involve a major “extra-musical” issue.  Serinus not only confronted the issue but also addressed it in his very first sentence:

Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, whose saga with stage four lung cancer continues to inspire an international audience, is in the midst of an astounding series of performances with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Nicholas McGegan.

I suspect that anyone who knows about Cao, particularly here in San Francisco, knows that the coverage of her battle with cancer probably surpassed the volume of reviews of her performances.  Perhaps this is one reason why none of the advance material (which I had seen from my “insider’s” point of view by virtue of my work) made mention of her medical history.  We were there to cover the performance, not the life history of the performer.

Nevertheless, it seemed far more than relevant for Serinus to address one of the works that Cao performed in the context of the “life history” of another vocalist who experienced a similar struggle:

… “Che faro senza Euridice” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, was the calling card of English contralto Kathleen Ferrier. While suffering from breast cancer that had metastasized to her bones, Ferrier bravely undertook a final run of Orfeo at Covent Garden in February 1953. She cut short her appearances after her left thighbone partially disintegrated during the second performance. With music lovers worldwide holding her in their hearts, the bearer of one of the most spiritually profound instruments ever to grace the operatic and concert stage died eight months later, at age 41. Thankfully, Ferrier’s ability to convey spiritual truth through music has lived on through her rightful mezzo successors, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Janet Baker, Frederica von Stade, and Zheng Cao.

Serinus further expanded his scope by noting that, in her performance of “Scherza infida,” from George Frideric Handel’s Ariodante, Cao used the same ornaments that Lieberson (who, like Ferrier, was a victim of breast cancer, dying in 2006) applied in a performance at the Göttingen Handel Festival, which was also conducted by McGegan.

My point is that performance is never strictly an objective matter to be described in purely objective language.  It is embedded in subjective and social contexts, just like everything else we do.  Like myself Serinus probably grew up in a household in which illness was alluded to but never discussed outright and the word “cancer” was never used.  I think it is important that we now live in a world that has gotten beyond such self-censorship, particularly when words we were once conditioned to avoid play a relevant role in what we, as writers, are trying to express.

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