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Michael Waldman: Operatunity and Shakespeare

Michael Waldman is a British producer/director who makes what he calls ‘constructed arts performance TV series’, in which ordinary people take to the stage in opera, musical theatre and even ballet to achieve the extraordinary. He was interviewed recently on ABC Radio National’s Media report by Christopher Zinn. Waldman’s productions are described as “bringing to the screen arts shows that grab the prime time slots and are both critically and popularly acclaimed”. The following are extracts from the ABC transcript

Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef (More)

Michael Waldman: “In the case of something like ‘Operatunity’ and these other programs, they are constructed because we are, if you like, the impresarios of what happens. We choose to make it happen, to set up a situation, in this case it’s an Opera House and other cases with similar organisations, where you invite members of the public to send in their videos; we select them, we bring them to audition, we train them, we then see them being judged.

“It’s constructed by, if you like, me and my team, the producers of it, to make it happen, and then the performance side of it, (because these things I’ve done happen to specialise in arts performance) is what you get people to do so they are of course performing in that process of auditioning and training, but it leads in the end to a very grand performance. So you have a sense of jeopardy, a journey, a climax.”

“The series that we did following ‘Operatunity’ called ‘Musicality’ and it was a similar structure, and the final destination if you like, was to take part in a performance for one night in the West End production of the musical ‘Chicago’. And it was an extraordinary night, I have to say, when it came to it at the end of the five-part series. It was very exciting, and in that case we had five winners, and there were many stories about them and their journeys.

“But what we learnt through that process of them and the colleagues who hadn’t made it, was that musical theatre is an art form, that is, if you like, a triple threat as they put it, you need to be able to act, sing and dance, and all those at the same time. And there are people who have one or two, but not necessarily three of those skills, and if you have two strongly and one moderately, you need to work very hard on that third.”

Waldman continued,

“Yes, I did a program called My Shakespeare, and that was very dissimilar to these. There was no national competition, it was looking at the theatrical work of William Shakespeare in the form of the play ‘Romeo and Juliet’. My Shakespeare, the ‘My’ applied to three sets of people. We had to start with, Baz Luhrman, here in Sydney, who was acting if you like, as a mentor or distant guru is a better way to put it, to a very good British actor called Patterson Joseph, a black actor who’s done a lot of Shakespeare, and who went back to Harlesden, an area in north-west London where he grew up, very diverse, not economically very secure area, who for the first time decided to direct a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with people from that area. So he was inexperienced as a director, although pretty experienced as an actor, dealing with people with no experience of acting, directing, or indeed ever been to the theatre. So Baz Luhrman was giving his pearls of wisdom to those groups of people in London. It was a very strange construction, but it worked.”

CZ: “So was it automatic you’d go to the world of ballet after having looked at these other ones?”

MW: “There was a huge ambitious project whereby the local authorities found 200 or so disadvantaged, troubled young people aged between 15 and 19, and over 18 months they were put through their paces, both physically by the Birmingham Royal Ballet trainers, starting with just fitness and beginnings of dance forms which are nothing to do with ballet, things they might have been more familiar with, and eventually dipping their toe (if I may use the metaphor!) into the world of ballet. But also very importantly, alongside that, the personal development side, which was the charities working with them, with getting these young people to talk about themselves, about their problems, amongst their peers, and to learn certain behaviours which perhaps they hadn’t learnt so far, which was that you had to turn up on time and if you were asked to move from Seat A to Seat B, you just did it and not walked out in a huff.

“These young people had huge issues in some cases. There was an extreme example: a young black woman who was aged 15 who was in a session early on, was asked to talk about herself, and what her problems were, and she talked a bit about loneliness and she quietly said, ‘Well it’s to do with my Mum “¦ I’m told that when I was 2 my Dad murdered my Mum’. Now this is big stuff, this is not trivial, and it mustn’t be trivialised. She was obviously coping with this unimaginable start in life.

… She showed herself to be focused, energetic, disciplined, with abilities to put her feet in front of each other, musically, and was cast in the character role of Lady Capulet, the mother of Juliet. And when it came to the final performance, the ballet reviewers who came to this, who said she was as good as the Bolshoi’s Lady Capulet. It was an extraordinary example of how the world of ballet is not alien to people who might have thought it was, both the participants and of course the viewers, were brought into the dramatic journeys that these people were going on.”


El Sistema: A Music Project in Venezuela

Recently, the training of young musicians in Venezuela has gained media attention because a young Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, has been appointed conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the Observer July 29, 2007, “Orchestral manoeuvres”, Ed Vulliamy wrote, “Simon Rattle describes him as ‘the most astonishingly gifted conductor he has ever met’. And yet 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel grew up in poverty in Venezuela. [This is the story of] El Sistema – a remarkable youth project which uses Beethoven and Brahms to save the children of the barrios.”

Talking of a rehearsal, the article continued, “The massed musicians surge towards the climax of the Alpine symphony by Richard Strauss – an epic contemplation of nature, scored for one of the biggest orchestras ever; an evocation of mighty mountains by the composer who occupied some bridge between fin-de-siecle romanticism and the brand of decadent modernism of early 20th-century Vienna.

… Yet Strauss – or the music of any other composer – is rarely played to this standard. Indeed, as major figures in classical music concur, these performers – the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela – are a phenomenon. Named after the man who led the uprisings against the Spanish colonial yoke, these young musicians are beating established European ensembles to record for the world’s most regal classical-music label, Deutsche Grammophon. And tonight in Caracas the orchestra, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, will inaugurate a new $35m Inter-American Center for Social Action Through Music, thereby crowning the city as one of the world capitals of music. But with a difference: these young musicians come for the most part from desperate shantytowns, not the conservatoires of Vienna or Berlin.”

The article recounts numerous instances of young people from the Caracas barrios achieving extraordinary levels of excellence in musical performance and their involvement in music having a beneficial effect on their families as well.

But here are the paragraphs that particularly struck me.

“.. this is more than the story of one prodigy, himself from a poor family on the outskirts of Barquisimeto in the Venezuelan interior. This is about what Dudamel calls ‘music as social saviour’. He and his orchestra are but the apex of a unique enterprise; the zenith of something deeply rooted in Venezuela, formally entitled the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, but known simply as El Sistema. Inspired and founded in 1975 under the slogan ‘Play and fight!’ by the extraordinary social crusader Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema flourished with a simple dictum: that in the poorest slums of the world, where the pitfalls of drug addiction, crime and despair are many, life can be changed and fulfilled if children can be brought into an orchestra to play the overwhelmingly European classical repertoire.

“And that is what happened. The road taken by Dudamel and his orchestra is one along which some 270,000 young Venezuelans are now registered to aspire, playing music across a land seeded with 220 youth orchestras from the Andes to the Caribbean. Rattle, music director of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, describes El Sistema as ‘nothing less than a miracle… From here, I see the future of music for the whole world.’ But, adds Sir Simon, ‘I see this programme not only as a question of art, but deep down as a social initiative. It has saved many lives, and will continue to save them.'”

“Dudamel’s rehearsals for the Alpine symphony approach their end. It is even more compelling to watch Dudamel in rehearsal than in performance – this combination of intensity and charm, severity and exuberance. Rehearsing the young orchestra that has been his life and is now his springboard, Dudamel always uses the expression ‘Let’s do this’, never ‘Do it this way.’ He talks the musicians through the piece’s meaning as well as its structure: ‘Let’s consider each bar as part of the whole,’ he coaxes, ‘as I think Strauss wants us to feel part of the perfect union of the whole – a philosophical reflection by man confronted with nature.’ He loves crescendos – ‘Let’s give it some push!’ – and as he rehearses the hushed finale which the musicians must perform in pitch black, he exhales, as the lights dim. ‘Let’s take it down – right down – slowly – turn it off”… until there is silence and darkness. ‘Ah, si!’ sighs Dudamel, breaking the spell, and everyone applauds.

“The rehearsal resumes and focuses on a particularly difficult sequence for trumpets, Dudamel is in dialogue with a remarkable young man called Wilfrido Galarraga who rides his motorbike from the barrio of La Vega to the Caracas university each morning to work on his thesis on the methodology of music teaching before moving on to rehearse. The thesis, he says, ‘is about how children can learn from lives of composers like Verdi, with his political views, or Tchaikovsky’s romanticism and homosexuality. These are interesting people, and this way we both educate children and break away from the idea that classical music is for the upper classes and the rich.'”

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra performs at the Edinburgh Festival on 17 August and BBC Proms on 19 August. Their second album on Deutsche Grammophon, Mahler’s Symphony No5, is released on 13 August. This is a CD I shall line up to buy, not just because it is one of my favourite pieces of music.


Arts Education for children and Development of Critical Thinking

In an article on “Arts Education” Museum News (published by the American Museums Association) for July/August 2007 (p.10) Senior Editor Leah Arroyo reminds us how public funding of arts education is struggling against attempts to narrow the curriculum, for instance through “No Child Left Behind”. However, the US Department of Education is promoting the study of art as a gateway to broader academic success. A grant program, Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination, supports local education agencies and “organisations with arts expertise in replicating or adapting ways to integrate arts disciplines ““ music, dance, theatre and visual arts into elementary and middle school curricula. A key goal is “improving students’ academic performance, including their skills in creating, performing and responding to the arts”.

Museums News comments, “recent studies by museums, funded by the program, argue that arts education does just that.” The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston reported on its three year program, “Thinking Through Art” research which examined the Schools Partnership Program. The study found “significant, positive impacts of multi-visit arts education programs in critical thinking skills in elementary children in grades 3-5. Students who participated, when compared with those who had not, showed statistically significant gains in five of seven skills ““ observing, interpreting, associating, comparing and flexible thinking – when looking at and talking about art. They were able to talk twice as much as students who had not participated in the program and were more likely to provide evidence for their thinking.

The Gardner Museum reports as follows:

“The Museum’s Education Department develops programs and resources that promote in-depth experiences with works of art. Ongoing partnerships with neighborhood schools and community organizations are central to our mission, and help inform the creation of interactive experiences for the general museum visitor.

“Between 1996 and 2000, a major grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts for the Eye of the Beholder project allowed the Education Department to deepen and expand partnership activities and to develop new programs for the general visitor. Current programs and activities are briefly listed below.

“The School Partnership Program builds close working relationships with teachers, students, and administrators in six nearby public schools. Partnering teachers bring their students to the Museum for several visits throughout the school year and work collaboratively with Museum educators to design programs that are relevant to the students’ experiences inside as well as outside the classroom. Additional professional development activities for partnering teachers include an annual all-day Teacher Institute and the opportunity to apply for the Teacher-in-Residence program.

“The Eyes on Art project is designed to provide teachers and other interested adults with information and looking strategies that can be used to plan meaningful Museum experiences for groups of children and young adults. Each of the three guides provides content that can be connected to a variety of classroom topics. Twelve slides accompany each guide.” The project is summarized on the Gardner Museum’s site.

Museum News reports that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has also gained funding from the DOE program for “Learning through Art” a program initially funded by the late Natalie Lieberman in response to the elimination of art and music programs in New York City public schools. A study at the two year mark last summer noted that the program produced better results in several categories of literacy and critical thinking skills. The Guggenheim has a special site devoted to this program.


The Metropolitan Museum and the “Sun King”

Last, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the “Sun King”, Director for the last 30 years, the 71 year old Philippe de Montebello. Amongst the articles about the possibility of de Montebello retiring is “Twilight of the Sun King” by Charles McGrath (New York Times July 29, 2007). The article enlightens us about some of the ways in which the Met distinguishes itself. It has a lot to do with the culture de Montebello promotes. Here are some of the paragraphs.

“During Mr. de. Montebello’s tenure the Met has almost doubled in size, and the budget has grown astronomically; the museum is now the biggest tourist attraction in New York, visited by 4.6 million people annually. But Mr. de Montebello is in many ways closer in spirit to a 19th-century connoisseur than to the kind of apparatchik so often in charge of museums nowadays, obsessed with revenue and head counts. He is the sort of director who believes in the Enlightenment notion of the museum as a temple.

“The job doesn’t even resemble what it once was,” [de Montebello] said, listing all his increased bureaucratic responsibilities: dealing with the legal and human resource departments, overseeing publications and, more recently, negotiating with foreign governments that demand the return of artworks they argue were acquired illegally.

“George R. Goldner, chairman of the department of prints and drawings, said: “Yes, Philippe can be very witty and charming, but that’s not why he’s successful. It adds to it. It gives him a certain luster among people who think that money means anything. But the real reason Philippe has succeeded is that he has a clear sense of the values that should govern this institution. He understands that a museum doesn’t exist just to make a profit or to please the trustees.”

“I won’t say Philippe hasn’t made compromises, but he’s allowed us to hold our head up.” He added: “You know, he’s really the antithesis of what the management types look for. He hates meetings, he makes decisions on the spur of the moment. His whole style is to stimulate ideas and creativity.”

“Philippe’s an old-school person,” Keith Christiansen, a curator of European painting at the Met, said. “The Met is not a cutting-edge institution.” And curators like Mr. Christiansen and Mr. Goldner, who has a dim view of most museum directors, calling them “pipsqueaks” and “a lamentable lot,” would like to keep it that way. They worry that Mr. de Montebello’s successor will turn out to be a slasher like Arnold L. Lehman of the Brooklyn Museum or Malcolm Rogers of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, who completely reorganized their museums, cutting lots of curatorial jobs in the process, and then went on to mount exhibitions based on “Star Wars” or Ralph Lauren’s car collection. They also dread someone in the grip of trendy sociological ideas, the kind of director who might have made sure that the Greek and Roman galleries included an exhibition about, say, the role of slavery in creating classical art or about the second-class status of women.”

Well, yes!


We need a bit more combustion, a lot more belief that people can reach extraordinary heights given the right belief in them by others, the right context in which people work.

And we need a lot less downsizing and reorganization and museum exhibitions on Star Wars, cars and subjects chosen only because they have something to do with some celebrity or favour some ideology or other.