These turbulent times may inspire our culture’s evolution

How will we humans develop as a civilisation? Will our shared progress and cultural values continue to grow and expand? These questions seem particularly pertinent now, when many around the world are harking back to a simpler age, and seem in favour of erecting boundaries around themselves.

I was thinking about the limits we place on ourselves when American opera singer Renee Fleming came to speak at The Pure Land Foundation at China Exchange recently.

While it might not be unusual for a singer or artist to allow themselves to become pigeon-holed, that can be stultifying. The artist is trapped by their own success into doing more of what they are good rather than developing additional skills or following their instincts.

Not so with Fleming. She has been breaking the boundaries of opera singers, and redefining what is expected of a classical soprano. Instructed to sing the standard Italian operatic repertoire of Puccini and Verdi if she wanted a major career, she trusted herself enough to understand that the timbre of her voice – and her nature – led her to Mozart and Strauss.

She also sings jazz, has released an album of indie rock called Dark Hope, and her new album contains songs by Bjork alongside 20th-Century American “classical” music and a new work composed for Fleming by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, debuted in 2013. 

Fleming is part of a long traditional of artistic iconoclasts. Igor Stravinsky, the Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor was noted for his innovation and stylistic diversity, pushing the boundaries of musical design. I think too of TS Eliot’s poetry with its lack of structure and jazz tempo, and the stream of consciousness found in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. More recently, it is difficult to imagine a more extraordinary innovator than David Bowie.

Of course, breaking the rules is risky business. TS Eliot was called wilfully esoteric and incomprehensible by some critics. The vivid works of the impressionists caused uproar in Paris when they were first shown. Post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh’s art was deplored in his life time. The Surrealists were despised by the Establishment.

Yet unless artists dare to shock and to break the accepted boundaries of taste, the development of culture stagnates. Art as a whole feeds on the variety and bravery of the individual artist.

But can progress go on indefinitely? Ceramicist Grayson Perry thinks not, warning three years ago that art is running out of ways to be innovative: “We are all bohemians now, the formal possibilities of art have been worn out…The system co-opts rebels, that’s what it feeds on.”

There are of course a range of views. Perhaps our turbulent times are the very impetus that art continues to need. The shock of world events could surely inspire a whole new generation of musicians and artists. It may be uncomfortable at first, it may at times be incomprehensible, but as long as there are sopranos and sculptors, playwriters and fine artists with a determination to keep experimenting, I believe our culture will continue to evolve and excite.

Bruno Wang, Founder of the Pure Land Foundation
Artists and iconoclasts have always led the way in overcoming traditional barriers and preventing cultural stagnation

Shaming online takes public humiliation to new depths

The online world can be a terrifying place. I feel it runs on rules that none of us understands, and at a pace which is impossible to predict. Of particular concern to many of us is the way a shaming, bullying culture has grown up, especially on social media.

Public humiliation as a punishment is nothing new of course: think of the public stocks in medieval times, or the white feathers sent to men who did not join the troops in the First World War. In American fiction, the power of public shame was memorably depicted in The Scarlet Letter, as heroine Hester Prynne is required to wear an A for adultery.

More recently, no one has epitomised the reality of public shaming more than Monica Lewinsky, who was humiliated worldwide following the revelation of her affair with then President Bill Clinton. “I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously,” Lewinsky has said.

She has commented that we would all know her experience as cyberbullying now. “This was not something that happened with regularity back then in 1998. And by ‘this’, I mean the stealing of people’s private words, actions, conversations or photos and then making them public,” said Lewinsky. “Public without consent, public without context and public without compassion.”

She said that the judgment she received, not the content of the story in which she played a role, overwhelmed the news cycle and her.

In the years since, Lewinsky has maintained a low profile – she finds unwelcome attention can still have psychological effects. But she gave a talk in 2016 called The Price of Shame, using her platform to fight for others. I found it a deeply affecting speech to watch. “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she said. “We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.”

There is no doubt cyberbullying is becoming one of the defining issues of our time – especially among the young. A study by the Department for Education in 2015 found that 11% of 15-16 year olds had experienced cyberbullying. And a global YouGov study in the same year found that one in five 13-18 year-olds had experienced it and believed it was worse than face to face bullying.

Internetmatters.org, a not-for-profit organisation that exists to help keep children safe in the digital world, says about half of all cyberbullying comes from someone known to the victim. No wonder then that children are being taught to think more kindly when online, and to avoid sharing or liking anything which is judgmental of their peers.

Could we adults learn from this too? How can we make the whole online world a less stigmatising place? I believe it certainly needs to be addressed. One of Lewinsky’s most comforting messages is that we can all “insist on a different ending” to our stories. That means being kind to ourselves, but also kind to others too.

Bruno Wang, Founder of the Pure Land Foundation

Over time, our leaders are often judged by their character as well as their actions

Tumultuous times often bring large personalities and politicians to the fore, but who will history decide to respect and remember?

We seem to be living in an era unusually full of events. Some are full of promise, some are worrying: international relations have not felt this fragile for a long time.

Throughout history, giant personalities have arisen in tumultuous times like these. It occurs to me that sometimes these people direct events and create chaos: I’ve seen Oliver Cromwell remembered in the press recently. At other times leaders seem to emerge in response to the need for stability – George Washington could fit that bill.

It is surely impossible to determine whether these personalities are exercising a malign or benevolent influence while they are still active. Indeed, I believe that both can be true and sometimes we can make judgments only from the perspective of history.

This is certainly true of leading figures in the Russian Revolution, the centenary of which will be marked this year, including by an exhibition of art and artefacts at the Royal Academy, one of my favourites exhibition spaces in London.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 will – for the first time – survey the entire artistic landscape of post-Revolutionary Russia, and include photography, sculpture, filmmaking by pioneers such as Eisenstein, and evocative propaganda posters. Curators of the show will bring the human experience to life with a full-scale recreation of an apartment designed for communal living, and with everyday objects ranging from ration coupons and textiles to brilliantly original Soviet porcelain.

It will also feature a rare image of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, painted by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin as the Bolshevik leader lay in state in his coffin in 1924.

The painting is rarely shown and spends most of its time in storage at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This is because Lenin’s body lies mummified inside the mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, and there are presumably still some adherents to the mythology that he lives forever.

Even the Russians who know full well that Lenin is dead still think well of the man who presided over one of the country’s bloodiest times. I was quite surprised to learn that a poll conducted by the Levada Center in May 2013 found about 55 per cent of Russians said they had a positive or somewhat positive view of Lenin; only 1 per cent did not know who he was.

As for their other leaders, the one who has the biggest number of Russians thinking well of him is Leonid Brezhnev, who ran the Soviet Union in the rather miserable 1970s. Perhaps the West might be surprised to learn that Mikhail Gorbachev is the least liked of all Soviet leaders.

I would suggest that it is very human to look for strength and dynamism in others, and this is how cults of leadership often develop. But perhaps before choosing or revering a leader in times that are “interesting”, we could consider not their actions but their character. George Washington himself said: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”

No wonder the world thinks back fondly of Washington; which personalities will survive such long-term scrutiny today, I wonder?

Bruno Wang, Founder of the Pure Land Foundation

The language of love in an angry world

I miss the time when “hate” was a somewhat foreign concept, a term encountered in theatrical drama but too extreme to be needed in the real world.
Yet, in the past few years, “hate” has made a resurgence. Terrorists of all ideologies stalk the world, attacking ordinary citizens as they shop, dance and love. After the EU referendum vote last summer, hate crimes in the UK soared by 41 per cent, Home Office figures revealed. In January Sadiq Khan, the Muslim mayor of London, had to warn of zero tolerance for hate crimes in the wake of anti-Semitic incidents in London. New York City saw a rise of 31 per cent in hate crimes in 2016, and leading financier George Soros announced plans to donate $10 million to fight what he calls “dark forces that have been awakened”.

On social media, we even have a new word: a “hater”, used to describe someone who seeks out ways to criticize others in public.
How has this global mood come about? Not all the fears that drive such hate can be easily dismissed.

In his new book The Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra talks of a global pandemic of rage. He suggests the phenomenon of continuous terrorist attacks can be attributed to ressentiment – a word taken from the French by Soren Kierkegaard to suggest that the mood of one “hater” can somehow multiply and ignite the suppressed feelings of others, morphing into permanent, murderous rage among groups.
The US presidential election seems to have opened the floodgates to allow dormant prejudices and fear to resurface. Political correctness, while often criticised, at least created an agreement to communicate with neutrality and sensitivity. That agreement is now in jeopardy.

How should we think about bringing people together in a way inspired by love instead? Interfaith research unit The Woolf Institute says this may be done especially well by those who practice a faith.
In its 2015 report Living with Difference, the institute describes a common theme among people of different religions and beliefs: they express their citizenship by demonstrating responsibility towards others in need, often regardless of religion or belief. “Social action is what will help bind our diverse communities together and contributes to a sense of well-being, empowerment and connection – and as long as we are not only ever taking care of our own. “Initiatives that involve less talk and more action and good deeds, done in a shared fashion between people of all faiths and none, should be encouraged, financed, celebrated and reported routinely as part of secular society’s public policy.”

Should we then all take individual responsibility to rehumanise our world? It is a great task. Our political systems seem often to have lost their soul, and it is up to us to consider reclaiming responsibility and belonging in our communities, and trying to reconnect sections of our fractured societies.
In his book The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman suggests we can all improve communication with our immediate loved ones in five ways: through giving gifts, offering quality time, using words of affirmation, carrying out acts of service, and through physical touch.
Perhaps this is the language we need to use in the wider world too. We might chip away at global ressentiment, and tip the scales back in favour of love.

Bruno Wang, Founder of the Pure Land Foundation

Lessons of hope

When I consider the children rescued by the Kindertransport at the start of the Second World War, I am reminded of the word resilience. We often talk of that word these days – how to instil it in our children, how to discover it for ourselves. Yet here were a group of frightened youngsters torn from their homes, families, language and security, and given no extra support. And somehow, they came to embody resilience and inner strength.

The idea for Kindertransport came from a group of British Jewish and Quaker leaders who appealed to then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain five days after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Their request for unaccompanied Jewish children to be offered sanctuary was debated by the British cabinet and within a week a Bill had been presented to Parliament.

Such speed seems remarkable, but the Home Secretary offered a compelling reason for action; German parents had been questioned on whether they thought Kindertransport a good idea, and had almost unanimously responded in a positive way. Parents were desperate to save their children however they could.

The speed of rescue continued. The first party of nearly 200 children arrived in Harwich on December 2, three weeks after Kristallnacht, and within nine months almost 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish, children travelled to England.

They came mostly from Germany and Austria, with transports from Prague hastily organised after Czechoslovakia was annexed. Later children came from Poland, and Kindertransports carried on until the declaration of war on 1 September 1939.

We know to our horror what happened to those that were left behind. Children died in Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka. The thought of what they underwent is horrifying.

Yet, perhaps we can take comfort in what their peers survived to achieve. Austrian Andre Asriel became a composer and German-born Frank Auerbach grew up to be one of the century’s greatest artists. Rolf Decker, also from Germany, became an American Olympian and international footballer, while Alf Dubs from Czechoslovakia was created Baron Dubs for services to politics. Indeed Lord Dubs is active now in the international refugee movement, most recently sponsoring legislation to bring unaccompanied Syrian and other war-displaced minors to the UK from Calais.

Another child brought by Kindertransport was pianist Lisa Jura whose story became the basis of The Children of Willesden Lane, a best-selling memoir written by her daughter Mona Golabek, which has been used by educationalists to teach children about the Holocaust.

We can only try to imagine how it might feel to send your sons and daughters away; to trust strangers to care for them at a time of such upheaval and survival.

When all solutions to survive were exhausted, all we can do is to tap into our inner strength and to trust and have faith. Perhaps we are all more resilient than we know. Perhaps there is a kernel of strength inside all of us which can sustain anyone through the loneliest, most challenging time. And from this springs the hope for all our futures.

Respect for the performer, regardless of race

The world and human consciousness have come a long way. While researching the social context behind the rise of Motown in the 1960s, I have learnt a great deal about the many artists, athletes and performers of minority ethnic backgrounds who were applauded on stage or in the field yet suffered from snobbery or prejudice in other contexts.

The Enforced Segregation Act was abolished in the US in the 1960s, but prejudices have remained stubborn worldwide. Remember the West Indian cricketers who had to be made “honorary whites” by the government of South Africa in the 1980s so they could play against the national side.

A 1990s clip shows a teenaged Tiger Woods openly discussed the discrimination he faced in golf. As recently as 2008, he had to endure a joke from an anchorman about lynching.

However, I believe it is fair to say that a respect for talent regardless of race, gender or class is finally taking hold. R&B, jazz and soul were long considered music to be enjoyed only by the black community. But this changed, in part due to the extraordinary music of Motown, which came to dominate the charts around the world from the 1960s onwards.

What the musicians of the 1950s and 1960s did have – compared with the singers and jazz artists of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – was the support of the growing civil rights movement. They knew times were changing. They were also very much part of the movement.

“We represented a social environment that was changing,” Mary Wilson of The Supremes said in 2009. “The experience we had known being black was not being bona fide citizens, not being able to drink out of the same water fountains, playing to segregated audiences. When that started to fall away, and you saw that music was one of the components that was helping it fall away, that’s when it really felt like we were doing something significant.”

Berry Gordy’s visionary Motown really was one of the first that attacked the segregation of the music industry when its records began to sell in quantity outside the traditional black markets. The songs and dancing were simply too much fun for young white audiences, already beginning to look for ways to rebel against their parents, to resist.

So now, when we applaud young black men and women on stage we do so with an authentic pleasure engendered by a proper respect for talent where race is irrelevant.

There is no doubt in my mind that this makes the performance more honest for both singer and audience. When we recognise and praise all humanity, we are moving towards a future of greater peace and harmony.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions

At the start of a New Year, classical music needs to stay current

Christmas is a time of tradition: carols by candlelight in ancient churches, tables groaning with lavish Victorian-style feasts; family histories shared and passed down in the rituals we all celebrate.

But then along comes New Year, and we shrug off our old ways in a headlong dash to embrace the new. We seek to renew ourselves. We undertake detoxes and personal spring cleans. We want the latest books, sports, diets, television and technology, new ways to improve ourselves and our lives.

Of course, there is always the danger that we will go a little far and lose some of what was most cherished in the process.

Nowhere, I feel, is this more true than when it comes to classical music. In our haste to adopt new forms of music, played or heard in new ways, are we at risk of abandoning the rich musical heritage which has sustained and informed us for centuries?

It would be naïve not to be concerned at what happens as we constantly look for the new. The American composer and critic Greg Sandow acknowledged the problem recently when he said: “Classical music has grown distant from our wider culture. We don’t connect well with the world. Most of the music we play is from the past, while the people around us are connecting with the culture and concerns of the present.”

In her book The Inner Voice, opera singer Renee Fleming urges a constant search for connection with modern audiences: “We need to spread the passion for music that makes some people such enthusiastic concert and opera-goers…The music itself will never disappear. Beethoven still makes people cheer, Richard Strauss can thrill and Mozart can even develop young minds. It’s our responsibility to learn how to speak to an audience that is less informed about music to give it a reason to want to come and see us instead of going to the movies.”

That ability to be flexible and agile in one’s thinking seems to be vital to surviving the 21st century in whatever field one works. It is as true in information technology or education as in music itself.

Perhaps that is how we will find the answer. By accepting the need for change within classical music rather than elevating it to a unattainable pedestal. We should enjoy Mozart when it is performed in period dress, but also embrace classical collaborations with rap stars.

I recently attended an amazing concert by Renée Fleming and, 5 time Grammy awards-winning jazz musician, Christian McBride. The program ranged from Moonlight sonata to My funny Valentine. Renée sang the famous Pearlfishers duet, solo, accompanied by Christian. Renée did a poll spontaneously with the audience. Half of the audience raised their hands to indicate they came for Renée, while the other half came for Christian McBride.

“Thinking creatively is our business,” says Fleming, and I concur completely. At this time of year when we are already thinking to the future, we are probably being more nimble in our approach to change – in every sphere – than we know.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation

The soprano immortalised, as art imitates art, and imitates life

Few operatic divas become immortalised in novels, but the voice of the great American soprano Renee Fleming is at the heart of the story Bel Canto by US author Ann Patchett. The novel won both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and has now been turned into an opera, premiered appropriately enough at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where Fleming is creative consultant.

The story is set in Lima, Peru, during the Japanese embassy hostage crisis of 1996–1997 and follows the friendships and love affairs which result. The most tragic is between American opera singer Roxane Coss and Katsumi Hosokawa, the chairman of a large Japanese company. They communicate through music as they do not share a language.

This is something I recognise – music as a way to cross barriers and borders. A shared experience through which emotions and passion can be delineated perhaps more beautifully than through words.

Indeed, it was Fleming’s voice rather than her actual physical self which informed the character of Roxanne. Patchett admitted that she had not listened to opera before writing the book.

Roxanne’s physical shape and character were based on Karol Bennett, an acquaintance of Patchett’s who was a singer. But it was that unmistakable Fleming voice which took over, the more Patchett listened as she wrote. The description of Roxanne singing Ave Maria is definitive Fleming: “Her voice was so pure, so light, that it opened up the ceiling and carried their petitions directly to God.”

Subsequently, the pair have met at the Met – Patchett has developed a passion for opera – and collaborated on Fleming’s autobiographical book The Inner Voice. Fleming credits Patchett with “supplying the art while I supplied the nuts and bolts”.

I would argue she is being unfair to herself. Fleming’s undoubted musical artistry is present in everything she does including the creation of The Inner Voice. Pablo Picasso said: “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” To which I would add, that they are then the genesis of art in ways that are equally as disparate.

But those of us in the audience are not without purpose too. As Patchett writes in Bel Canto: “Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. … It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are the spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world’s greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.” 

Witnessing Fleming perform is certainly that. No wonder then that Patchett says Fleming now is Roxanne Coss. “Sometimes,” the author says, “inspiration seems to be retrospective.”

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation

The singer who lives on through her music

How do we want to remembered and live on after death? For Florence Ballard, the young African American woman, the founding member of the most successful American female singing group in history, The Supremes, the answer is probably through music. Not just her own, but also the music she inspired.

Florence Ballard recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who in turn recruited classmate Diana Ross to form The Supremes, with 12 number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1960s and 1970s. At their peak, their popularity worldwide rivalled The Beatles and their success paved the way for future American R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream acclaim.

At the beginning of their career, for the most part, the three women performed equal leads on songs. But as the 1960s progressed Motown boss Berry Gordy, recognising the influence of TV on the sale of music records, saw Ross as the most appropriate figurehead to broaden the group’s appeal from mostly black audiences to white record buyers and concertgoers.

The Supremes had deliberately embraced a more glamorous image than previous black performers. They appeared on stage in detailed make-up and high-fashion gowns and wigs, and performed graceful choreography as Gordy challenged the often prevalent period image of black performers being unrefined. Ross’s cool tone and poise suited that ideal better than Ballard’s strong soulful voice and fiery temperament.

Ballard however began to chafe at the way her band had developed, and started behaving erratically. After she was removed from The Supremes in 1967, she struggled with depression, alcoholism, poverty and a physically abusive relationship over the next nine years. Just after she began a musical comeback, she died of a heart attack at the age of 32.

Yet her contribution to music has never been forgotten. Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Supremes in 1988. And her story has been alluded to by artists as varied as Billy Bragg, the hip-hop artist Nas and the actor Jennifer Hudson.

Ballard may not have had a long or particularly happy life, but her legacy lives on today. It is an extraordinary achievement and perhaps it’s more than she would have dared to dream of.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions

Renée Fleming teaching the world to sing

We all need role models. Whether we aspire to be a great humanitarian or a Nobel prize-winning scientist, a mentor who shows the way (and may even help to smooth the path) is vital.

Mentors in the arts are a particularly strong tradition. The master-disciple relationship is still important in much of Europe, especially in Germany where visual artists such as Joseph Beuys, the iconic sculptor, served as mentors and teachers, building up circles of influence around them. Beuys said: “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.”

Among musicians the notion of leadership through teaching is equally important and is exemplified by opera singer Renée Fleming. Her backing for young singers begins at school level – she is a supporter of the Chicago Public Schools Arts Plan, which is focused on making the arts a dedicated part of the curriculum in schools throughout that city. And in her role as Artistic Advisor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Miss Fleming is developing new mentorship/educational roles there as well.

She also mentors teen vocal students as part of her role as creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This role sees her working with the Merit School of Music, where many students are tuition-free or on scholarship. Miss Fleming gives masterclasses and sometimes uses Skype to stay in touch.

Of her charges, she believes even though not all of these students will become professional singers or musicians, “they will take the skills that they’ve learned in mastering a difficult instrument to the workplace, to the rest of their lives.” Miss Fleming’s approach to tutoring and mentoring has been described as kindness mixed with enthusiasm by some past students.

Taking the idea of educating out of the classroom and on to the streets, Miss Fleming supports an organisation called Sing for Hope which places pianos in public spaces in New York City each year.

It works year-round to bring music and the arts to under-resourced schools, hospitals, and community centres throughout the city nurturing a roster of hundreds of artists, amateur and professional alike – from opera singers to jazz musicians, actors to dancers, painters to puppeteers. The artists are encouraged to participate in volunteer service programmes, where they bring the power of their art directly to those who need it most. Miss Fleming has performed repeatedly at their annual gala, and lends support and guidance throughout the year.

Of particular joy to fans of Miss Fleming, as well as students, are her Masterclasses, which she carries out whenever and wherever in the world she can. They reveal her natural grace, generosity, warmth and humour, and are inspiring and enjoyable to watch for anyone.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to learn that she often says how much she enjoys and treasures this aspect of her art. Miss Fleming considers herself extremely fortunate to have been given guidance by Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, and Beverly Sills as her own career developed.

The magnificent American soprano Jessye Norman once said: “One needs more than ambition and talent to make a success of anything, really. There must be love and a vocation.”

Miss Fleming has inspired so many musicians in their careers. She is a remarkable role model, and all art is made richer by her generosity.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation