Journey in Winter

I’m inspired by a great concert to write for the first time in a while. I published my thoughts on Medium here:

For anyone who can’t access that, the full text follows.


I know we are in for it when I see the dress.

The whole topic of dress is loaded in the business of classical performance. When it comes to concert attire, there’s this incredible amount of energy that goes into instructing and shaming and judging classical performers, and women get the worst of it. Even inexperienced women in the field understand a lot about how to “perform” their clothing.

Joyce DiDonato is not inexperienced.

So you can bet that I take notice when she walks out in 19th century widow’s weeds, a black gown with a high neck and a lace yoke and big ruffles at the bustle. Her chic short hair makes no attempt to hang with that style. She is not a character from another time and place, but Joyce DiDonato, hip opera superstar, wearing a beautiful anachronism of a dress.

She and Yannick Nézet-Séguin get the kind of well-earned ovation reserved for those already widely and passionately revered. She is a beloved artist in repertoire from Handel to Heggie, just as generous with her gifts in masterclasses as in performances; he is the skilled and energetic leader of two storied institutions in need of and grateful for his fire. The Ann Arbor audience was treated to Winterreise less than a year ago on this same concert series, but the JDD/YNS pairing is an event no matter the repertoire. And indeed, as the artists graciously accept their protracted welcome, it almost looks like a straight-up art song recital. Besides a chair and a small table with a book, there’s nothing to suggest anything particularly theatrical. Except that dress.

The lady in the frilly dress at the piano: classic art song.

The modern woman in the old dress: disconnect.

DiDonato wrote a blog post about her decision to take on Winterreise, and so I know that “What about her?” was the salient question driving her interpretation of Schubert’s cycle. “Her:” the unnamed women who is the reason for the Winterreise poet’s despair and solitary journey. DiDonato was informed by her experience in the opera Werther; her character Charlotte is the muse of the 19th century’s most famous depressive genius, a woman who loves him and fears him and tries to understand. Is today’s dress a nod to Charlotte, mourning the genius she cannot save?

As they begin the performance, a single title is projected on the screen: “I received his journal in the post.” Apart from the simple framing devices of that title and the few props already mentioned, there isn’t any other theater. DiDonato picks up the small book and “reads” the text from it: the songs are the journal entries of her dead or absent lover.

What ensues is direct text and voice, beautifully and fully modulated, expertly and truthfully used. At the piano, Nézet-Séguin is supportive and free. Musically, this Winterreise is another gorgeous entry in a long and storied catalog. But in that dress, with that journal in her hand, DiDonato delivered something subversive.

When I was in music school, which songs were appropriate for which genders was a topic of hot debate: should women sing Dichterliebe? should men sing Fiancailles pour rire? I happen to know through a friend who works for the Ann Arbor concert series that at least one patron returned their tickets for this Winterreise because they didn’t prefer to hear a woman sing it, so the topic’s not dead. But DiDonato did something new: she made no attempt to sing the text as though the words were hers. She didn’t take her place as the poet. Instead, she sang as the person left behind, the person named as the reason for the suicide or the breakdown or whatever happened. She took up the voice of that invisible woman, the projection screen of the poet’s desires, fears, disappointments.

Ihr Bild, come to life.

This messes hard with the whole aesthetic of the song recital: usually, the singer works to embody the poetry and speak it as though it is “theirs,” or at least as though it belongs to the character they are portraying in the moment. With DiDonato holding the journal and repeating the text of the writer in the midst of her own heartbreak and shock, we weren’t experiencing the poetry as narrative. Instead, we experienced excavation, therapy, retrospection.

And in the middle of it, I realized what it was about that dress.

It was the black dress of Clara Schumann, of Cosima Wagner, of Queen Victoria, of every obedient bygone widow but especially those with a specific and lucrative story to tell. These women are astonishing more than a century after their deaths: a concert pianist touring Europe and Russia while nursing, an operatic empire’s imperious ruler, a global empire’s supreme monarch. But they each performed the role of widow in public forever, signifying with their clothing their relationship to the genius men with whom they’d aligned themselves and from whom they would never be separated. The men in whose light they stood, whose fame legitimized their own.

The geniuses.

Today’s Winterreise delighted my ear and touched my heart; Joyce DiDonato’s dress blew my mind. While some of our music’s biggest fans still wonder whether this masterwork should be sung by a female, our profession struggles with revelations of abuse of power centered on our cultural definition of and response to the idea of genius. DiDonato sang the text of Winterreise while her dress spoke of connection to the past, respect for authority, bowing to tradition.

Status. Mourning. Loyalty. Demut.

Two of our profession’s biggest stars were bringing musical freedom, technical sovereignty, and tonal beauty to every note, while the dress was saying, we bow to the absent creator of this work.

Or maybe: something is lost that we can never have back.

Or maybe: never forget.

And then, DiDonato put the journal down.

Clara and Cosima were both curators of diaries that served to cement and influence their husband’s legends, from which they both profited and suffered. Cosima edited hers extensively before releasing it; Clara and Robert wrote theirs together with an eye toward the entries being publicly read someday.

DiDonato performed the final song, “Der Leiermann,” from memory:

There, behind the town, there’s an organ grinder who turns out tunes with his frozen fingers. No one wants to hear him and nobody looks at him.

I thought about all the stories that are never told, the people wandering the streets who each have an operatic tragedy behind them, their families and friends and lovers somewhere else, dressed in black, pouring through journals or Facebook pages and wondering what they missed.

I thought about how much classical performers are performing mostly for each other, how for all our talk of new audiences we continue to be invested in gatekeeping, still wondering which genders and which hemlines are appropriate as the world changes around us.

I watched and heard these two remarkable performers, at once part of an unbroken tradition and yet somehow in mourning for it.

Strange old man, should I go with you? Will you play the tune to my songs?

DiDonato in that moment seemed to be talking to Schubert himself.

Now that you know my side of the story, will you grind out a tune to accompany me?

Strange old man, should I go with you?

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