- Conducting opera may be classical music’s toughest job. Fabio Luisi does it with grace.
- Scholarly translations are a battle between literal accuracy and literary interpretation.
- Elizabeth Streb may well be the most fervently anti-dance choreographer you’ve ever met.
Coming up, conducting opera may well be the hardest job in classical music. The quietly-spoken Fabio Luisi does it all with grace and aplomb.
Fabio Luisi: They are asking me to show them how to play, and where to go with the music, and so I just explain that, I don’t need to be loud.
Scholarly translations are a constant battle between literal accuracy and literary interpretation.
Esther Allen: You have to create something that’s real and alive on the page, and that isn’t just a sort of pale shadow or cliff note or sketch of something else, somewhere else.
And it’s rare for an artist to disavow her own genre, but Elizabeth Streb may well be the most fervently anti-dance choreographer you’ve ever met.
Elizabeth Streb: At the last second where you wake up and you’re about to die, you wanna have that feeling, yes, I did it! What does a human have to do to have no regrets at that second?
That’s all ahead, on Articulate.
The legendary 19th century German composer Richard Wagner used the term Gesamtkunstwerk to describe the complexity of opera. It doesn’t translate very easily, but it basically means an all-embracing art form. And charged with coordinating all the moving parts of this all-embracing art form, from singers, to orchestra, to chorus is the conductor. One of today’s greatest opera conductors is: Fabio Luisi. Serious and soft-spoken, he seems a world away from the stereotype of the flamboyant, passionate Italian, except when it comes to one particular item of clothing, his socks.
Fabio Luisi: I like to joke about them, that it’s my transgressive part. It is like, it’s a little bit, not to take everything so deadly serious.
Today, Luisi is a regular presence in the world’s great opera houses. Since 2011, he’s been principal conductor at the Met. He began planning his career at an early age.
AJC: You went to an opera rehearsal in Genoa when you were young, and you made two decisions. One, that you were going to be a conductor. And two, that you weren’t gonna be the kind of conductor that shouted at orchestras or singers. True?
Luisi: It’s true, yes. But at that moment, the first decision was made that I wanted to be a conductor. How would I behave as a conductor? I didn’t know yet, but what I knew was that the behavior of that conductor, in that rehearsal, was not nice [and] was not acceptable to me—even if I was a kid.
AJC: But there was a time when conductors could get away with being dictatorial and big. A lot has changed since then. Now, I don’t think anybody would try that, would they?
Luisi: No, it is not possible anymore. I, and many of my colleagues, we try to be one of them and just making music together among good musicians. I don’t need to give order to artists because we are talking about music, and mine are just suggestions. And they are asking me to show them how to play, how and where to go with the music. And so I just explain that I don’t need to be loud.
Luisi applies this philosophy to every aspect of his job. He’s especially aware of how vulnerable singers can be on a grand opera stage.
Luisi: I can make their life very difficult if I’m too slow, or too fast, or too loud. Or I don’t help them when they need — if they need a cue, I don’t give that cue — and so I can be uncooperative. I can be against them, which I never am. So knowing this, I try to do exactly the contrary. How can I help them? What do they need? They need a cue, they need to feel I am with them. They need to feel they have a support from me. Of course, sometimes I just like to listen to them, because they are singing so beautifully.
And whereas Luisi is world-renowned as a conductor, he’s increasingly gaining reputation for his skills as a perfumer, a creator of handmade custom perfumes using exotic ingredients in a workshop in the heart of New York City.
AJC: My sense is that smell and music, when they evoke memory, are probably coming from the same place.
Luisi: You’re using the right word, because evoking is absolutely the right word for it. And which connects the two of them, music and the sense of smells. What do they do? They bypass the intellect and they go right there in that part of the brain where memories pop up. And this is what the connection between the two, which I like very much.
AJC: How does it present itself? Do you smell it in your brain? Is it in the same place where we smell?
Luisi: Mm yes, yes and no. The idea is maybe an image, or a situation, or a person, or a group of person — and so I try to translate this into a perfume. And then, creating the perfume, you have to mix to find the balance. This part is very similar to our job. So mixing instruments, this one not so loud, this other one a little bit more so they don’t cover themselves, and I have the right balance.
And it would seem that Fabio Luisi’s life is itself an obsessive quest for balance, in every sense.
The problem with translation is that as an idea moves from one language to another. Iit cannot survive wholly intact, and this problem has existed from the very start.
Esther Allen: Our preoccupation about translation stems from this concern with the sacredness of the word. We have an absolute literary masterpiece. We could discredit the King James, and say, oh you know, “It’s not correct.”
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
Allen: We’ve learned that it’s not actually “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” but it turns out it doesn’t matter! There is an emotion in those words that has been vivid and real since the King James Bible was published. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death is what’s in all our heads, it’s the reality that is present within our language.
Esther Allen is among a very select group of Americans that includes Meryl Streep, Ornette Coleman and Jim Jarmusch, who’ve received France’s Order of Arts and Letters. But she’s not a performer, she’s a literary translator. The craft that today suffers from the same indifference that for centuries was the plight of other artists who we now glorify.
Allen: It takes quite a long time before actors emerge to the forefront in the world of the theater, and in the development of the European theater. For quite a long time, they’re anonymous figures. They’re even despised, because unlike the orator they’re just speaking somebody else’s words. And it’s very similar to the ways in which translators today are kind of rendered invisible or irrelevant.
Kristen Dykstra: A California apple costs 30 centavos. A tiny apple that arrived in our port as contraband. It fits inside a fist. I give it to my daughter. It’s sweet, yet acidic at the same time. Like all true apples, it trades flavor for a price.
And literary translation will always require bounds between conveying literal meaning and preserving the original literary style, says translator Kristen Dykstra.
Dykstra: Because I have a very utopian drive of the impossible translation, I want the literary impact, and I also want it to be relatively technically correct.
Both Dykstra and Allen have found gold in previously under-appreciated Spanish language works. Peter Cole’s specialty is Hebrew poetry from medieval Spain.
Peter Cole: I give everything I own for that gazelle who, rising at night to his harp and flute, saw a cup in my hand and said, “Drink your grape blood against my lips.” And it’s incredibly rich and sexy and devotional and witty.
ACP: And the subject matter is
And when attempting to translate whole worlds of words, Esther Allen says it’s crucial to remember that language isn’t something to be deciphered.
Allen: Code obviously has a single right way of decoding it. And when you’re transmitting messages via code, it’s very important that that be the case, that the troops are arriving via the Rhine River. Once you’ve deciphered whatever numbers or letters equal that message, you don’t want it to be at all ambiguous. Whereas language is inherently ambiguous. And yet, it’s not something to be deplored. The fact that we don’t all see everything in exactly the same way, it’s something to be celebrated as an integral part of our humanity.
And the process of our translation is so fundamentally human, as Peter Cole discovered when he met with programmers at the forefront of translation technology.
Cole: I did ask one of them at one point, what about translating tone, and what about the things that go into making a good poem. And he said, “It’s never gonna happen.” They can’t do that. ‘Cause there you’re moving from science, from the realm of technology. There are dimensions of the art involved that they don’t feel, at least with the paradigms they’re working with now, they’ll ever get to.
Not least of all because of the visceral nature of words.
Cole: The shapes, the feel of words, what is it like to have a word in your mouth? That’s a very complicated place to be. I always tell my students, you translated a line of poetry or a paragraph. Now, you’re biting into it. What’s happening in your mouth, when you bite into that? Is it aluminum foil on your teeth? Is it balsa wood? Is it peanut butter? And what was the original like?
Matching an author’s flavor is no easy task, even for a seasoned translator like Kristen Dykstra.
Dykstra: And every time I get something that’s a different style, at first I think, I can’t do this. And then you spend time with it, and eventually, if you give yourself enough time, you realize that you can, but you have to find that moment where you click with the material, and you have to figure out how to make it click. My favorite is Angel Escobar, very sonorous poet, and had a long background in the theater. And there was a point when I suddenly realized I need to try to bring out the sonorous resounding qualities of his poetry, that’s the sound. You need to fill the room, that’s what Escobar did when he was in his space. So what I did was I went back over sort of maybe the literally correct material and replaced it.
Allen: So if all you’re trying to do as a translator is create something of a distant echo of the original text, then you yourself are doing something that’s doomed to fail. You have to create something that’s real and alive on the page, and that isn’t just a sort of pale shadow or cliff note or sketch of something else, somewhere else.
But the where of that somewhere else is a material consideration.
Cole: Ireland, England, it’s pretty close, but yes and no, right? So, northern Spain, southern Spain, Christian Spain, Muslim Spain? So to get the distinctiveness of each poet was a real challenge. But if he turned out to be on his own, cut off like a branch from a tree, without a mother or father, with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless without a child, and without kin nor neighbor or friends, I’d be content. I would like to think that you could tell pretty quickly those poets from each other in my translations, but you could also tell my translations from somebody else’s translation. So it’s a kind of meeting of sensibilities.
Balancing the sensibilities of author and translator can be an emotionally-charged process.
Cole: You have your innermost thoughts and feelings, you have your reputation in the world, there’s gonna be some friction, there just has to be! And you learn to live with it, sometimes you deal with it better, sometimes worse.
Allen: First of all, there’s kind of a mistrust, because the author doesn’t speak the language the book is being translated into. I’m looking at a translation of my work into Japanese. I have no idea, right? No idea!
And though a translation will always be a compromise between the original intent and the words of the translator, the alternative, says Kristen Dykstra, is not worth contemplating.
Dykstra: People have so much idealism around translation and the idea that things are un-translatable, that at some point, you have to let it go. Turn it around and say: “What happens if I don’t translate this?” “What happens if we don’t try to translate works of poetry, philosophy, other types of difficult translation and we only translate technical manuals because we feel most comfortable with our capabilities?”
And so it would seem that . . . It is better to get lost in translation than never to have translated at all.
For more than 30 years, the STREB Extreme Action Company has been the vehicle for the most dangerous artistic vision of a founder exhausted by the predictability of dance.
Elizabeth Streb: You can’t hedge your bets, that’s the worst thing you can do in STREB. If somebody hedges or pauses before they’re going, that’s the most dangerous thing. And so everybody does have to be a team member, there are no real soloists. Because it’s not really about that, it’s about what does a whole image look like and feel like to the audience, the impossibility of the image.
Streb is a MacArthur genius, Guggenheim fellow and a recipient of a steady decades-long flow of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. By default, her category is dance, but her troop contains no dancers. They are action heroes who practice pop action.
Dancer: Her curiosity in action, and discovering what true action is, I’ve only seen with STREB.
Dancer: The notion that humans can fly, it’s really different just to come in here and know that the ground and the air have equal terrain for us to tread us.
Streb: We fly, but we land. And I think in the landing, in the crash, is where the potential content of the rise and fall and rise of the human form might be contained. That’s drama, it’s the failure of flight, is the most exciting moment.
AJC: And what about ballet? Surely there’s a failure of flight every 10 seconds in ballet?
Streb: But they’re so graceful, it’s annoying! I think they’re artificializing gravity, they’re pretending it’s not there. I don’t approve of that. And even though a proper arabesque is the golden mean, it’s got the right radius and it’s perfect, and the rhythm is musically, absolutely apt to whatever they’re dancing to, I think it is a decorative form. It’s about adornment to me. And displaying the body as if that body had the capacity to be a deepened holder of content, which I don’t think bodies alone do.
But Streb does believe in using all body types to their fullest potential.
Dancer: I’m partially a dancer, I took a little bit of modern, a little bit of ballet, but I never felt the woman of my size and of my color, the things that I tend to pursue. I never felt like dance was something that welcomed that difference. They always want the female to be super skinny and in a sense, really frail and really, you know, like long, straight hair and look beautiful, and here you’re allowed to be yourself. She really appreciates massive dancers, I think the work calls for a lot of meat so that you can withstand the impact and do it over and over and over again and survive that kind of work.
AJC: Dehabilitation seems to be a badge of honor in the ballet world. Every ballet dancer walks around hurting all the time. Is there any badge of honor in getting injured in what you do?
Streb: No, but there is a badge of honor in the fact of getting hurt and going on.
And Streb performers do get hurt, because what they’re doing is dangerous, by design.
Streb: If it’s not dangerous, and if it’s not out of your comfort zone, then it is not an event anyone will ever perceive or recognize or experience physically. It’ll always be visual or oral. So for me, the project of STREB is to present extreme action onstage and have it be as it should be, a phenomenological event. There’s a whole school of people who really think what I’m doing is unacceptable, I’m sure. And they sometimes share that with me. Maybe for that reason, that I’m hurting people, that I’m causing people to get hurt, which happens sometimes, myself included. But the idea that you are born, and we all have this responsibility to use our talents, and by the time you’re done with your journey, you have done it, you’ve used it. At that last second when you wake up and you’re about to die, you wanna have that feeling: “Yes, I did it!” What does a human have to do to have no regrets at that second?
New works are often born out of an expiration of the gravity-defying possibilities of some strange piece of equipment, such as this 21-foot STREB prop, the spinning ladder.
Streb: I wanna know if someone can climb both sides at the same time, what would happen? And when you get to the end, can you just go around to the other side, like an internal climb, while it’s whipping around. So I want all nine dancers climbing, even when they’re falling. That’s never happened, but something else happens, and I go, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t expect that to happen!” Like, I have hundreds of questions with every piece of equipment, and they do it, and it just leads to—it leads down the rabbit hole. So it’s really just stabbing in the dark, pretty much continually.
Though all this uncertainty could usually be a cause for fear, not so for Streb. Fear for her is just more information.
Streb: It’s a messaging system, that we have more work to do before we try something, that I can’t go that fast right now, it’s a plethora of knowledge. The fear is just the marking system that “Oh, the alarm bell goes out,” and “I have some more work to do here.”
AJC: So it’s a combination of reducing fear, and also getting to be better at the things so there’s less to fear?
Streb: I don’t think it’s that you’re less afraid, I think it’s that you know you can do this. And some days you go up there and you’re like the first time you went up, and it’s terrifying, but you still know you can do it. And you know you will take that first step off the edge.
Dancer: She likes to push people to the limit. She wants you to know what boundaries are.
Dancer: A time I was pushed to my limits is every day I’m in here, if I’m being honest.
Dancer: Personally, I found that my boundaries are, were a lot farther than I thought they were, and that’s been very surprising and a great journey for me for the past nine years.
Streb: I think fear is complicated. It really is about staying in the moment, and I think the practice of staying in the moment erases your literal experience of fear while you’re doing this moment, the next moment, the next moment. I think fear comes when you jump ahead to what could happen. It’s like a lurch into the future, or lurch into the past when you got hurt the last time. And so I think the conquering of fear happens when you just stay in the moment and do the right thing. And all of a sudden, it’s the next moment, it’s the next moment, and the next moment,. And when you’re able to psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually do that, and it hurts, and it’s not a good idea for anyone else and all that. That’s the highest plane of existence I can imagine.
AJC: It’s almost the opposite of that thing of, when you are in mortal danger, that your brain automatically starts to split everything into tiny, tinier fractions, which makes it feel like it’s going on for longer. It almost feels like you’re preparing for that moment, you’re rehearsing that moment.
Streb: Yeah, it does. And it’s sort of like a thing where you, actually, you have control over some things. Really? You’re completely out of control. You’re diving into your destiny and it’s not something you’re doing, it’s something you’re letting happen to you. And that’s really the magic of motion, I think. And it’s the magic of life, that you really, really have to allow yourself to say, “I’m letting something happen to me.”