Joyce DiDonato and the power of music

One of my greatest pleasures is to listen to the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has just been named the Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year, a prize awarded by the Dallas Opera.

Miss DiDonato’s mellifluous coloratura voice has graced the world’s stages, entrancing audiences with her interpretation of works by composers including Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

Currently starring in Benoît Jacquot’s production of Werther by Jules Massenet at the Royal Opera House, Miss DiDonato is wowing London audiences in this tale of doomed and tragic love.

When I first met Miss DiDonato, I couldn’t help but notice she was vibrating with love and joy, and that many people were naturally drawn to her energy field and her warmth. They seem to soak up her aura and cannot get enough of it.

My personal affinity with her was heartfelt and instant. In each other, we recognised kindred spirits. And I admired her extraordinary musical talents, but also her generosity, her enthusiasm, her graciousness, and her passion to make the world a better place.

For Miss DiDonato is more than an opera star – she is a stellar human being, unafraid to use her position to support others, not least as a long-standing supporter of LGBT rights.

Miss DiDonato responded to the recent murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida by posting a link to her performance in February 2015 of Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s 17th-century opera Dido and Aeneas. She performed that at the Stonewall Inn, a famous gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. The performance was given to commemorate the emergence of the modern gay rights movement, which had been sparked into life following riots at the Stonewall in 1969.

And at the 2013 Proms, she moved many to tears when she dedicated her performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, from the Wizard of Oz, to the LGBT community “whose voices are being silenced”, particularly in Russia.

I also admire her work with the Carnegie Hall’s outreach programme which last year saw her visit the Sing Sing prison in New York state, collaborating on songwriting and compositional projects. She also performed for the prisoners, as she did in April this year on a return visit.

But perhaps it is the support Miss DiDonato has given to the Dallas Street Choir which moves me most. This choir is made up of the homeless – people who have lost their voices as well as their places in society. By encouraging them to sing, the Choir gives back to these dispossessed men and women their dignity and hope.

Her performances for the Choir not only raised vital funds, but also endorsed the value of song as a mark of respectability.

She may be divine on stage, but Miss DiDonato is no clichéd diva: “I know that every time I step on the stage it’s a real gift,” she says. “So I try not to take it for granted, and I try to make it an experience that the public can really participate in.”

Miss DiDonato’s compassion and humanity is an example to us all. I am immensely proud to call her my friend.

A perfect pas de deux is on the road to wisdom

As a dance aficionado and patron of the Royal Academy of Dance, I know this art form is intensely demanding on a physical level and requires total dedication. I’m also aware of its mental needs: the intensity of concentration allied to the body’s strength and flexibility.

When it comes together we reach a sort of sublime transcendence. You can see it in a dancer such as Carlos Acosta who may perform a perfect hortensia, looking almost as though he is swimming in the air. Then, I see ballet as magic, more than physical exercise.

Ballet may yet be something more than that too: a step on the road to wisdom. An interesting study published in February in PLOS One suggests that regular ballet classes and lessons may improve brain power. The research carried out by the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology had been aimed at assessing a possible link between meditation and the gaining of wisdom.

Dancing had been included merely for comparison purposes, and the research team had not been expecting to find it was associated with wisdom. The team’s members were left surprised. Patrick Williams, lead author and a postdoctoral researcher admitted: “The link between ballet and wisdom is mysterious to us and something that we’re already investigating further.”

This includes studies with adult practitioners of ballet, as well as among novices training at Chicago’s famous Joffrey Ballet. Williams wants to track novices and seasoned practitioners of both meditation and ballet for months and years to see whether the association holds up over time.

I am not surprised at the powerful effect of ballet on the mind. The seminal American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said: “Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.”

Meanwhile, the artist and choreographer Pina Bausch, founder of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, used dance to challenge and stimulate the mind of the viewer. David Bowie was so influenced he drew from her work for his 1987 Glass Spiders tour.

What is it about dance that speaks to us so deeply? For Bausch some of the power was in repetitive movements, which she believed had different meaning every time they were performed. And I can imagine that new emotions allied to perfect repeated muscle memories will create healthy neural pathways throughout the brain.

Could this be the source of wisdom, the constant stimulation of the brain while in perfect harmony with the body? It is at the very least stimulation for the soul.

King Ludwig’s castles reflect his inner struggles

Attending the English National Opera’s new production of Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner – its first since 1996 – was a great joy. I am delighted to be supporting this opera, which is directed by Daniel Kramer and features designs by Anish Kapoor, one of the most influential sculptors of his generation.

As I waited for the curtain to rise, I was reminded of the composer’s curious relationship with his patron Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who lived from 1845–86.

King Ludwig was a reclusive character whose flamboyant taste in castles – astonishing neo-gothic palaces which decorate the tops of Bavarian mountains like fairy tale castles or indeed opera sets – belied his inner need for quiet, simplicity and even secrecy. Inside his most famous palace – the Neuschwanstein – his bedroom is simple and almost monastic, the small single bed a shrine to his single state. Yet the walls are painted with romantic murals telling the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The stimuli for building these edifices came from King Ludwig’s visits to France, and Versailles in particular. He envied the French their artistry and culture, and decided to encourage the development of the Arts in Bavaria on his return.

The schloss which resulted – including the breathtaking Neuschwanstein (which I have visited), the Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and the Munich Residenz Palace Royal apartment – were initially popular. Construction brought employment to hundreds of labourers and artisans, and money flowed into the poorer regions of the country.

But gradually the sheer excess – combined with Ludwig’s increasingly eccentric behaviour – turned the court and country against him. Ludwig was declared insane, and subsequently died in strange circumstances. Was he murdered? It’s impossible to rule out.

At the heart of his story, I believe, lies a struggle between his strict Catholicism and his homosexuality, which at the time was forbidden both by Church and state. Ludwig must have lived in a state of constant internal conflict which resulted in a lifetime spent curating his own reality: a world that was very romantic and beautiful even though it was not accepted by others.

In this, he reminds me of more modern celebrities such as Michael Jackson who seemed to suffer equal depths of personal turmoil. Jackson, like King Ludwig, found his outlet in creativity and the arts. His output was prodigious and Jackson knew its value saying: “Music has been my outlet, my gift to all of the lovers in this world. Through it, my music, I know I will live forever.”

Did Ludwig hope to live forever through his castles? Perhaps. Yet his wider legacy is importantly tied to his patronage of Wagner, whose music might never have been composed without the king’s support.

Certainly that was partly driven by his suppressed attraction for the young composer: “Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely,” Ludwig said, “that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods.”

In the end Wagner was not able or willing to stay by Ludwig’s side, yet the king continued to pay his bills from afar. It is a debt modern music lovers can never repay; its value is too great.

Feeling at home in old and new design

It’s important to revere the past, but it is equally valid to revel sometimes in the pleasures of modern life. So I was fascinated to learn recently of the organisation Living Architecture, which was set up at the instigation of philosopher and writer Alain de Botton.

In de Botton’s recent book The Architecture of Happiness, he discusses the theory that a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent.

Living Architecture is a response to this: a collection of modernist properties that are available to rent so that those unfamiliar with new buildings (other than the airports or other public spaces they may pass through) can experience the allure of the new.

Properties available for rent include Grayson Perry’s recent build A House for Essex, which is both an artwork in itself and the setting for a number of his works exploring the special character and unique qualities of Essex.

The building has been designed to evoke a tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels. It belongs to a history of follies, while also being deeply of its own time.

In that way, it is surprisingly similar to the properties of the Landmark Trust, an organisation that makes available to let historic houses. They are inspiring in a more traditional way yet I do not think they are any less interesting for being old.

The Landmark Trust owns (and has restored) all kinds of quirky buildings such as the Gothic Temple at Stowe, Lord Dunmore’s exuberant pineapple pavilion near Stirling, and the 23 buildings and fragile eco-system of the isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.

Bringing its properties up to date, the Trust’s rescue from utter dereliction of Astley Castle in Warwickshire has seen the fusing of medieval and modern in a bold new scheme.

Rather than pitting old against new, I wonder if we should simply acknowledge the glory of all these special buildings. As Frank Gehry said: “Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.”

This, after all, is the true test of design. Do we value its intrinsic qualities, its sense of internal space, its curves and straight lines as much after four years as four hundred years? Brilliant architecture can revisit the old in the new, predict the future while being rooted in the past. A house is always alive and interactive; we help to shape it while fulfilling our need to call it home.

The irresistible lure of nature

When I learned about plans for a Garden Bridge to span the River Thames like an arbour of greenery linking north to south London, I was fascinated. The bridge – originally an inspirational idea of actor Joanna Lumley – seemed like a fantastical scheme, perhaps even an impossible one.

Its award-winning designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose visionary work includes the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron and the UK’s amazing “Seed Cathedral” Pavilion for the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, has stated that he believes The Garden Bridge will be “an extraordinarily special place, either to race across, relax in or look back at the rest of the city’s sights”.

Certainly, the creation of these five garden glades with more than 100,000 new shrubs and flowers, and 270 new trees growing out of two specially designed planters, could be used by some as a new park to relax in. It will surely also act as an extraordinary super-sized window box for many who live on both sides of the river and have no outdoor space of their own.

The real appeal may lie in the plants that The Garden Bridge supports, the choice of award-winning horticulturalist Dan Pearson. Because whatever remarkable towers, cathedrals, castle and other physical structures we create, humans throughout the centuries have revered their gardens just as much.

Indeed, the drive to contain and perhaps even control nature is as strong today as it was at the time of the Shang Dynasty 3,000 years ago. We know that large enclosed parks were established then for kings to hunt game with their friends, in the valley of the river Huáng Hé. Spaces were designated for growing fruit and vegetables, platforms or terraces were built so that the king could survey his lands, and ponds were dug for boating and fishing.

Incredibly those traditions and human preferences seemed to have remained constant throughout the past millennia. Think of the micro-managed yet vast gardens of Versailles, which took 40 years to lay out, or the Grade 1-listed “rooms: of Sissinghurst Castle’s estate, designed by Vita Sackville-West.

It seems to me possible that we enjoy gardens because we experience, almost like some minor deity, the thrill of creation and control? In a landscaped garden, it is us that must decide what must grow where, sometimes paying less attention to nature’s own designs.

Or is our enjoyment perhaps the converse confirmation that we are so very human, that we must always give over control to a higher power when we work with nature – be it God, Buddha or a simple cry of Hope. We can plant a seed, water it and care for the young plant which may grow. But the very finest gardeners know well that one can only do one’s best, that nature may have other ideas for our grandest of designs. Gardening is sometimes simply the truest expression of the triumph of hope over experience.

Dangerous castles in the sky

When Glenn Close first appears on stage at the London Coliseum as troubled silent movie star Norma Desmond, the audience goes into raptures of delight. Close first played Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in LA, and then New York, a production I was lucky enough to see. Now she is back, making the dreams of fans come true.

But while fans’ wishes are fulfilled, they know as aficionados of Sunset – whether the original Billy Wilder movie, or this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – that Desmond’s own dreams, thwarted and crushed, can lead to the most terrible tragedy.

The fictional Desmond has in her youth been a poster girl for the dreams of millions; but her nightmare develops when she loses the power to inspire those magical illusions. Trapped in her mansion, surrounded by self-portraits, living in an egocentric world, her fantasies are stoked by the adoration of Max, her beloved factotum (and first husband). Meanwhile, he pours his own dreams for her into the preservation of the Desmond myth, thus allowing it to keep growing, and grow out of control.

We should all be aware of Max’s errors: he is enabling Desmond to stay stuck in her fantasy and won’t help her to face reality. This isn’t hard to understand: very often, we give in to what our loved ones want, not what they need. It’s such a difficult balance to strike between our desire not to hurt the people we love and the importance sometimes of delivering true protection through some difficult home truths.

Joe Gillis, the young scriptwriter who narrates the story from beyond the grave, has his own fantasy problems. His dreams have been dashed so frequently that he has turned cynic. The stage is set for an inevitable clash as Joe cannot live through Desmond’s illusions any more than he can live out his own.

The mistake I feel is to accord such grand fantasies any importance in the first place. In Buddhist teaching, the state of sleep is sometimes used as a metaphor to describe the state of being ignorant (literally un-awakened). And the dreams we have while sleeping can symbolise fleeting desires for the unobtainable or pointlessly ephemeral, whether it be material success or the adulation of others.

We need to shake off these “dreams” by living fully in the now, not anticipating some glorious future or harking back to some marvellous past. Enjoy the illusions on stage, but be grateful for real life when the curtain falls.

A golden age of philanthropy

I hope and believe that we are embarking on a golden age of philanthropy among Chinese business people.

It has been said in the past that government regulations almost make it more difficult to give away money in China than to make it. Certainly it has taken the passing of a new charity law by the National People’s Congress earlier this year to make giving truly practical.

The new rules enhance tax incentives and make it easier to establish charitable trusts in the manner of the long-standing American tradition. They also demand that charities are more transparent too, to boost confidence in the emerging Asian Third Sector.

Last autumn meanwhile saw the China Global Philanthropy Institute established in Shenzhen. And a recent Harvard report showed that China’s top giver (in absolute terms) was billionaire He Xiangjian, who showed enormous magnanimity through donating more than US$60 million to social welfare causes.

So where do the philanthropists engage with the world’s needs? Some of the Chinese billionaires who attended the recent Global Philanthropy Leaders Program in London are interested in supporting education by providing scholarships or building schools. Others will find common cause with the arts, universities, disaster relief funds, the environment or by supporting government-backed charities.

While the modern connection between great wealth and philanthropy is a relatively new one for China, the tradition of altruism is strong in its people.

It makes me think of Ren, the moral principle of Confucius which he considered one of society’s highest ideals. To hold to Ren means fulfilling one’s obligations and responsibilities to society and to be kind-hearted to others. It begins with familial love, but is particularly important when practised by officials and those in positions of power.

In his collected sayings, known as the Analects, Confucius says: “Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.”

I believe that in modern philanthropy we are interpreting this quality of Ren for the 21st century. I am fascinated at how these old truths seem to span the centuries, and are reinvigorated as a result.

We may not live in the courtly age of Confucius, but we are much freer to become successful, regardless of our backgrounds, and then to decide how we want to share the fruits of that work. If it is easier to establish ourselves, it is also easier to “enlarge other”. This may look like the growth and flowering of a new approach to philanthropic capital, but the roots were inside us all along.

Warmth and wisdom of the monarch

What comes to mind when we think of Her Majesty the Queen, who has just turned 90? For some, they will focus on her status and dominions, the centuries of tradition which she embodies so gracefully, her position as the figurehead of a nation, her historical place in arguably the most famous line of Kings and Queens.

Others may think of her in the context of her heirs as well as her illustrious ancestors. They will point to a very modern queen whose children and grandchildren are being raised to navigate the complexity of a world which has changed dramatically since she was crowned in 1953. Among them, particularly, the Prince of Wales, whose devotion to causes as diverse as the environment, history, literature and spirituality, suggest he in turn will be a monarch of real substance and relevance.

For myself, I think of her majesty’s strength and integrity, qualities which she has displayed from childhood, and which have carried her through her father’s early death, and a life which has known many challenges including among her immediate family. This is something she has acknowledged, saying: “Like all families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements.”

This is one of the reasons why I am honoured to support the Outdoor Trust, which aims to create 100 Walkways in all seventy-one Commonwealth Nations and Territories. These routes will be designated with special bronze markers bearing The Queen’s cypher – EIIR – as they are intended to celebrate Her Majesty in a subtle yet inspirational way. Walkers from around the world will be alerted to more than 10,000 highlights along the routes.

This global project reminds us that the Queen’s pledge of “duty” – made at her coronation – has led her into almost constant contact with statesmen and women from around the globe. The preparations that she makes for these contacts and of course the time she spends meeting people worldwide must make her one of the most well informed and knowledgeable people on Earth.

She imparts that wisdom without fanfare, but with a very deep concern for the improvement of all lives. And her advice is constantly drawn on not by successive prime ministers from the UK, and politicians and religious and community leaders from around the world.

The Queen has said: “I know of no single formula for success. But over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.”

Is she herself the most perfect catalyst for compassionate change? I believe so. And I think this is something we can all learn from and admire. A walkway to follow for life.

 

 

Parental love should be expressed through the gift of time, not money

Recently I was in a restaurant enjoying conversation with friends when I saw nearby a family of five all sitting mutely at their meal. Instead of taking the moment to share their day or enthuse about the delicious food, each one was staring individually at an iPhone or iPad. I was quite amazed: the adults were avoiding a connection with their own children.

Of course, you often see adults checking their mobiles at parties, living in a virtual state rather than engaging with other humans and really connecting with people. And I have to admit, I have been one of them. It’s easy to get carried away with some fascinating piece of content or video clip on your phone. We’ve all done it.

But what left me saddened by the restaurant scene was the way that the adults in this case seemed to be avoiding connecting with their own children.

Buying expensive screens to entertain youngsters is no substitute for affection. Nor, for that matter, is dressing your children in designer clothes, often in the same fabric and cut as the adult versions. These children, groomed to be customers of the future in a sophisticated marketing exercise, may feel like charming miniature versions of their parents. But they can unwittingly appear instead to be unwarranted further expressions of their mothers’ and fathers’ pursuit of wealth and status symbols.

It is easy for a child to articulate his or her desire for material goods, often under intense peer pressure for the best playground gizmo. It is far harder and more unusual for children to articulate their need instead for their parents’ time and attention, but that is what they crave the most. Even before we are old enough to express this, we understand that love is a motion as well as an emotion. A moment of genuine interaction trumps the most expensive gift.

I may be being harsh on my fellow diners, and perhaps they had been having a wonderful interactive time before I arrived. But parents must fight the impression that a material gift means love. Otherwise they risk having children whose value system is skewed.

The scenario is not new. Tales through history have warned us of this: in the Brothers Grimm tale of King Thrushbeard, a beautiful, spoilt young princess cannot see love as she is too shallow. She must undertake menial work and know poverty before she learns her lesson about materialism.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl deals with the spoilt children who win golden tickets to see inside Willy Wonka’s world. Veruca Salt is particularly singled out for her demanding nature (and ultimately thrown out with the rubbish).

Even so, Dahl makes it plain where the blame lies: “A girl can’t spoil herself, you know. Who spoiled her, then? Ah, who indeed? Who pandered to her every need? Alas! You needn’t look so far To find out who these sinners are. They are (and this is very sad) Her loving parents, MUM and DAD.”

Yes, if we are fortunate enough to be able to do so, it is wonderful to introduce children to fashion and creativity, the worlds of technology and communication. But we must be careful to do so with modesty, and not to mistake gifts for grace.

 

Our salvation lies in hard search for honesty within

 

It is difficult but important to watch Denise Gough’s astonishing performance as the self-destructive Emma in Duncan Macmillan’s new play People, Places, Things. She is engrossing, enthralling and utterly infuriating.

No wonder that Gough has just received the Olivier award for Best Actress, with critics hailing her performance as a tour-de-force. The play, which I am happy to sponsor, is enjoying an extended run having transferred to the Wyndham Theatre from the National thanks to the reaction from critics and the public.

The quality of the production from acting to set is undeniably high, and it is superbly directed by Jeremy Herrin, artistic director of the touring theatre company Headlong. But I believe audiences are reacting to far more than just a well-staged night at the theatre.

It seems to me that the play itself dares us to search within and ask how we feel about the truth. Can we ever be completely honest with ourselves and do we understand what redemption truly means?

Emma is an addict entering rehab and fighting every step of the way. She is too clever to be helped, too tragic, too self-important, too busy. She is manipulative, demanding and hollow. And the hardest truth she claims to face is that life without highs is meaningless, saying: “I want to live. I want to live vividly and make huge, spectacular, heroic mistakes.”

The doctors and fellow recovering addicts must help her to open up, and take herself apart, so that she can begin to understand what recovery means. And this is what Emma finds hardest; trusting others with your true self requires enormous courage.

Trust requires us to make a bond – forged in truth – or else relationships remain sterile and one must continue on a lonely existence, without support or safety net.

This is not just applicable to romantic relationships but also to those friendships we develop through work or shared passions. It is also particularly relevant to families as Emma discovers. Unable to be honest with her own parents, she cannot rely on them for support when she needs it most. Her endless lies have corroded their desire to help her.

The one gift left that they can give is a jolt of self-knowledge so fierce she cannot hide any more and has to be honest with herself. Can any of us manage that? There can be no lasting love or happiness without honesty; our salvation is surely worth the attempt.