Interview with Dancer, Dickson Mbi

On 25th January, Pop City UK, will host the street dance event of the year in our capital. Four hundred and fifty Hip Hop and Popping artists will compete in a day-long international dance competition which will be live-streamed using Instagram Live. As well as attracting the finest dance artists in the business, the event aims to attract aspiring dancers of all ages from our London communities.

*Popping artist, Dickson Mbi is Creative Director of Pop City UK. With his dance company, Fiya House, Dickson has done much to promote street dance throughout the world. He has been nominated for many awards, including ‘Best achievement in Dance’ at the UK Theatre Awards 2017 and for the ‘Southbank Sky Arts Breakthrough Award’.




Dickson Mbi Dancer and Creative Director PopCity UK


Were there any dancers in your family when you were growing up? 

No, but my granddad, who was also named Dickson, was a musician and did do a few dance performances in his time. 

Who and what inspired you to street dance in the first place? 

Michael Jackson and many Hip Hop artists of the 90s and really, I did it to impress the girls. However, this all changed when I realized how much the dance gave me.

What do you enjoy most about street dancing? What type of dance/style of dance suits you best?

I enjoy exchanging and dancing with other people, who don’t believe they can do this as I was that person once. The style that suits me best is popping and I have been doing it for 16 years.

When did you set up Fiya House your dance company?

In 2012 with my dance partner Brooke Milliner

What have been your biggest challenges in your career up until now? 

Staying current, making an event that caters for everyone, and always trying to remember to keep on having fun, as sometimes things can get really serious.

With your dancing – how much is set routine, how much improvised in the moment?

It all depends on the context. If I am in a dance battle or a club/party then it’s all improvised to music that I have probably never heard before; if it’s for a show then it’s all set routines with the freedom to improvise in parts.

Your most memorable performance?

Performing in front of 16k people at the Stade de Paris in 2007

Do you dance with other Hip Hop artists or solo? (In an ensemble?)

Both. There’s so much freedom in Hip Hop and so many opportunities to come together to perform with others in this community. 

Have you ever done ballet? Have you danced with ballet dancers?

Yes, I did ballet in school (Lewisham College and London Contemporary Dance School) and I have danced with several ballet dancers. 

Do you personally train dancers? 

Yes, I do. On our Fiyahouse Friday training sessions at the Base Dance studio in Vauxhall.

What advice would you give an aspiring street dancer?

Keep on practicing and most of all keep on having fun.

In what countries are the hip hop and popping competitions held?

They are now pretty much held all over the world now. It is so much easier now to do that because of internet and social media. 

How are the dances judged (how many judges are there?) 

Every judge is different, contestants are usually judged on musicality, creativity, foundation, technique, confidence, flava, originality, quality of movement and the vim (the unexplainable feeling they get from watch). There can be as many judges as possible; I think the best is not to have an even number.

Any new projects on the horizon after Popcity UK 2020?

Yes, after Popcity we will be planning for our Easter camp training and jam at Fyia House. 

Do you feel you have a mission? Have you achieved it yet?

Our mission is to develop, share our community with other communities and connect dance to everyone in the nicest way possible. 

Do you have your favourite djs/music artists to dance to?

My favourite Djs are usually the ones that play music from the 90s and my favourite music artist is Michael Jackson.

Other ambitions?

No, not really, I just want us to keep on going, growing and connecting with the rest of the world. 

Like music – do you think dance can create a better world?

Yes, I do believe dance creates a better world and gives people more confidence and self-awareness as it did for me.



*Popping brings together dance styles such as the Robot, Waving and Tutting and much much more. Popping is performed in battles and club settings, where participants try to outperform each other in front of a crowd.

Tickets for the event: Box Office: 0207739 6176. Online booking:

Popcity UK vol.5 is presented by Fiya House, funded by Arts Council England, and supported by Shoreditch Town Hall and Team London Bridge. 

Event 11am-midnight. Tickets from £10.00



Wagner Singing Competition at the Wigmore


Climatic scene from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde 1910 Rogelio de Egusquiz


1979 was my A-level year. Also the year I discovered Richard Wagner.

We had one good stereo system in our sitting room which pumped out rock, pop, jazz and classical at all hours, to all corners of our Victorian house in Barnes.

One Sunday afternoon, hunched over Frank Wedekind’s play, Frülingserwachen (Spring Awakening), I heard a slow, rising, crescendoing soprano voice drift up the stairs to my bedroom at the top of the house. Liebestod, Mild und leise, from Tristan and Isolde, was my first introduction to Wagner. Never had I heard anything so sweet and so gut wrenching. Isolde’s climatic cries ran right through me. To say that I was blown away is an understatement. 

Jesse Norman singing Mild und leise. Tristan and Isolde

Some people find Wagner excessive, his operas too protracted and let’s not even talk about his moral and political shortcomings! There is no doubt that he was complicated. He did hold anti-semitic views and yet had close Jewish friends. His step-father meanwhile, was not only rumoured to be his true father, but also Jewish. Hitler’s championing of Wagner after his death, did the composer no favours of course.

On the music front, Wagner was and is phenomenal. He revolutionised opera, injected it with high drama, and by doing so, he really made the singers live their roles. His music  was not only romantic and rich, it was multi-layered and exciting, his haunting recurring leitmotifs, climatic highs, took opera to another level.

Despite being seduced by his music from an early age, I am no connoisseur. There have been few fully staged Wagner operas on offer in the UK for the past few years. However I was heartened by the news that Tristan and Isolde is coming to ROH in April 2020. This coupled with semi-stagings of the RingCycles at the Festival Hall, set for 2021, is an exciting prospect.

So it was with great interest that I came across the Wagner Society Singing Competition last week. The final was to take place at the Wigmore Hall.  Prizes and bursaries were on offer, also the chance for the winners to travel to Bayreuth to sing on the prestigious Student programme. Each of the finalists were to perform a piece by Wagner and a second one by a composer of his or her choice.

At the Wigmore, I perused the programme which stated that 2019 had produced a record number of participants. The biographies revealed three sopranos, two baritones and one tenor who had made it to the final seven. I looked round the art and crafts auditorium,  and thought I spotted Hugh Canning, Sunday Times music critic and one of the judges, up above in the balcony looking down on us mortals.

Out stepped the first entrant, James Corrigan, Scottish baritone. Corrigan sang Wolfram’s Act 2 aria from Tannhäuser, where Wolfram performs in a singing competition at the medieval court of Wartburg. (Might Corona have chosen this aria for this reason?) It is a simple aria about holy and courtly love. Corrigan’s baritone was pleasingly golden, his performance discrete but assured and in character.

Lucy Anderson, who followed, sang a engaging Eva from Die Meistersinger Quintet, with lovely rises, hitting the top notes confidently, but it was her Magda in Menotti’s The Consul that showed her true grit. This opera, conceived at the height of the Cold War, is drama personified and not out of place in a Wagner competition. A sample of the libretto below…

‘Started crying and I couldn’t stop myself

I started running but there’s no where to run to

I sat down on the street and took a look at myself

Said where you going man you know the world is headed for hell

Say your goodbyes if you’ve got someone you can say goodbye to’

It was a challenging sing, a brave choice, but Anderson has the personality to carry it off. Look forward to seeing her Tatiana in Tchaikovski’s Onegin at Opera Holland Park 2020, where she’ll be taking part in the excellent young artists’ scheme.

Dominic Bevan’s interpretation of Lohengrin’s Farewell, In fernem Land was sung with fervour and great delicacy. The tightness in Bevan’s voice, brought about by nerves, made his performance all the more touching and moving.

Meanwhile powerful soprano, Australian born Kiandra Howarth, risked dislodging a few tiles from  Wigmore Hall’s gold cupola at full volume. What a voice! Howarth who has been on Royal Opera’s Jette Parker programme, showed perfect vocal control and made light work of Elsa’s Dream, Einsam in trüben Tagen (Lohengrin) Radiant in a bright orange chiffon dress, she brought great energy and brightness to the soberly-lit hall.

The very elegant mezzo-soprano, Yuki Akimoto, a vision in red this time, brought gravitas and tremendous feeling to her Isolde role, performing Mild und leise to perfection.  I had come to the competition hoping to hear it and I was not disappointed. A very professional and assured performance. (Just the over enunciation of German ‘d’, ‘t’s in English, which needed toning down a bit)

Baritone, Jolyon Loy, has a beautiful baritone, but at the competition his talents didn’t come to the fore, lost between two spectacular soprano performances. I have since listened to him on Youtube and I think you will all agree, he is going places Here he is singing Wolfram’s aria, O du mean holder Abendstern, which he sang at the competition.

Finally, I need to take a breath before announcing this young woman. She is Ukranian, petite with a  sublime voice! Her Wagner aria was superbly executed but it was singing Verdi’s Ave Maria (Otello), that Nataliia Temnyk brought the house down! Goose bumps, heart racing, I dropped all my papers when I rose from my seat.

A remarkable event and at my time of writing I still don’t know which singers will be making their way to Bayreuth next summer!


The Wagner Society. Only £30 to join up for the year for which you enjoy great perks.


In Search of Dora Maar


Model, Assia Granatouroff photographed by Dora Maar


Walking into the Tate Modern show on Dora Maar, a question wouldn’t go away. Would Maar’s best work turn out to be what she produced during her years with Picasso?

The Barbican show I had attended on artistic couples, in January of this year, was still fresh in my mind. It had been a fascinating exploration into the creative process and showed how women, like Dora Maar, had not only been muses but artists in their own right. Dora Maar was one of many female creatives who had to fight their patch to get recognised. (See my review here)

Taking up where Barbican left off, Tate Modern has organised a retrospective of Maar’s work. It spans decades, right up to her death in July 1997. Here, we were told by the curator, the focus was to be less on Picasso, whose fame and force of personality wolfed up the limelight, and more on Maar’s extensive output. With two hundred photographic and painted works to peruse, it promised to be quite a show.

In the room entitled On Assignment Maar’s advertising work was displayed. The inter-war years presented opportunities  for women photographers to work in the fashion and beauty industry. Out of the rows of tastefully lit monochrome images of women with swept back hair and silken slip dresses, there are few that really stand out. The Years Lie in Wait For You c 1935  however is inspired. An apprehensive-looking young woman, stares out at us through a spider’s web superimposed on her face. A remarkable image, it is thought it was used for an anti-ageing cream. 

Outside advertising, Maar excels in photographing the female nude. Maar was lucky to have the model, Assia Granatouroff at her disposal, whose sensuality and confidence in front of the camera, allowed Maar, not only to explore the female form but also female identity and sexuality (see Header pic) These photographs must have earned her a good deal of money in her time and to this day such erotica reaches a fine price at auction, for the work is adventurous, artistic and proud.

On the Street in Room 3, takes us outside the studio and into the streets of Paris, London and Barcelona. Having researched the subject for my 1930s novel set in Paris, I was interested to watch a short film documenting the poverty, the street children, the political riots of the era. Both right-wing and left-wing riots paralysed Paris for many years as governments came and went. Moving on from the film, I was disappointed in Maar’s prints, which did not reveal anything exceptional. It was probably to do with the lack of contrast in the printing. I prefer a rough, grainier print for documentary work of this kind, a form of printing which would become de rigueur in the 1960s with photographers such as Don McCullin, Diane Arbus.

I largely skipped Room 4 entitled The Everyday Strange, feeling like I seen too many images of the ilk: a man with his head down a hole, inspecting the sidewalk, does not strike me as that strange but maybe I’m being unfair.

More interesting was the Surrealist room. The curator quite rightly points out that, at the time, photography, considered factual, was not thought to be the best medium for the surrealist genre which highlights the subjective and the imagined world. Collage and photomontage techniques was a way around that.

I was amused, but had a sense of deja vu viewing the surrealist montages, having already pored over many surrealist photobooks in my lifetime. One photograph however caught my eye, Portrait of Ubu, produced in 1936. It is an extraordinary shot of what is now believed to be an armadillo foetus up close. It is clearly disturbing with its Dumbo ears, lemon-shaped face and two-fingered horny claws. 


Maar was inspired by Alfred Jarry’s play, Ubu Roi performed in Paris, way back in 1896. Ubu Roi, the play’s central character, is ugly, dishonest, petty and cruel who carries out political assassinations and generally causes havoc. For left-wing intellectuals such as Maar, Ubu Roi symbolised the right-wing dictators of the day.

In the Darkroom and the Studio my interest spiked as we had reached the Picasso-Maar room. A negative of Picasso, taken by Maar, is attached to the wall. I had already seen the print at the Barbican and recalled the scribbled fringe running around Picasso’s face and half obscuring it. Picasso peers out at us with one eye. A peeping Tom? Jesus crowned in black thorns? A leonine male? All three? It is hard to fathom whether she was just being playful or ridiculing him.

Also of interest (both at the Barbican and Tate Modern) is Lee Miller’s candid photograph of Maar (1956)  when Maar was nearing fifty years of age. With her hair up and without a scrap of make up, Maar looks older than her years. She is sitting in a chair, looking out of the window, ghostly pale. Our eye moves up to the central mantelpiece, where an unfinished portrait of her hangs. It is Picasso’s rendering of her as a younger woman. Her beautiful eyes show an intensity of character, her pursed lips, pride and her inherent sadness. The face is incomplete however. One could ask why? What is striking is that, in this simple portrait, Picasso captures what I believe to be the real Maar. She is not the composite of womanhood, The Weeping Woman, made up of geometrical triangles, garish green and reds and gushing tears; she is just Dora.


At the show, I read that Picasso never painted her from life. It obviously rankled her. The portrait in Lee Miller’s photograph, is the only one Maar liked of herself and now, in hindsight, one can understand why.

For all his faults, Picasso did encourage Maar to paint. A large canvas dominates room 6. It is of  two women sitting, one full-breasted blond-haired woman facing out, the other dark-haired, with her back to us, offering just a sliver of the side of her face. The Conversation painted by Maar, with its bold outlines and flattened features, is so reminiscent of the cubist style that I had to check that it wasn’t painted by Picasso himself. The blonde woman is of course Marie-Thérèse Walter, who, having borne Picasso a child, still continued to see her old lover throughout his relationship with Maar. It is strange that Maar has chosen to have her back to the viewer. Marie-Thérèse meanwhile is in the spotlight, as if on trial. The painting is strangely still though, very much at odds with the catfights they were supposed to have had!


The Conversation by Dora Maar, 1937.

Guernica follows and from then on I lose Maar. Her expressionist paintings of her house in Ménèrbes and its surrounding landscape made little impact on me. Having visited the Provençal village myself and stood outside her beautiful house and seen the stunning setting of the hill top village, I do wonder why her paintings translate simply into a blue wash.

More impressive were her engravings for an anthology for poet André du Bouchet (1924-2001) entitled Mountain Soil in 1956. Her light ink impressions of nature are charming here and suit the poetry. 

Maar’s photograms at the end of the show, which she made by placing household objects  or personal items on photo-sensitive paper, was an attempt by Maar to deconstruct the whole photographic process. Rather like Matisse with his cut outs. Unremarkable, they are nevertheless a record of her continuing quest to create in her final years.

Returning to the thorny problem of Picasso. There is no doubt Picasso had much to be grateful for from Maar. She was not only his muse, his model, his confidant. She was his mentor – it was she who persuaded him to paint Guernica. Picasso hadn’t been particularly politically engaged up until that point and his heart-rending canvas of the Spanish Civil War massacre would become the painting that defined him and gave him political gravitas. 

To say that Maar created Picasso is an exaggeration. Picasso was his own man. I do wonder however, if her energies would have been better employed developing the theme of The Conversation, which showed great promise.

The Tate Modern is an interesting and overdue retrospective of Dora Maar’s work. By showcasing her achievements particularly in the interwar years, we get a sense of the energy and the passion she devoted to her photography and her political engagement.

Worth visiting, but I would recommend reading about her life as this is the missing link here. The lack of biography was a problem for me. I would have engaged more with her work, had I had more information about her life, her friendships and her lovers, before and after Picasso.


Tate Modern’s Dora Maar runs until 15th March 2020

Orphée – Philip Glass’s mesmerising homage to Jean Cocteau

Orphée – Philip Glass

English National Opera, 15 November 2019

After the technicolour excesses of The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera’s season of operas inspired by the Orpheus myth closes with Philip Glass’s 1991 Orphée, a mesmerising, monochrome hommage to Cocteau’s eponymous film of 1950.

The operas of Philip Glass have proved a rich seam for ENO, with a sold out revival of their award-winning Aknaten (2016), and Satyagraha (2017) – both sumptuous, absorbing productions. For those of us attuned to the slow-mo unfolding narratives and choreography of these operas, Orphée by comparison positively jostles – at least in its opening café scene, the influence of French music and Glass’s studies in Paris evident in this sequence. It is also considerably shorter at only two hours, with a small chamber orchestra, though the music is no less satisfying and I was surprised at how texturally rich it was even with reduced orchestral forces.

This new production of Orphée is directed with great imagination and thought by Netia Jones, who combines live action and projection, including fragments of Cocteau’s film, and a constantly counting digital clock, to compelling effect, continually reminding us of the illusory-versus-reality nature of film. This, along with almost entirely monochrome costumes – black with white details redolent of Cocteau’s own line drawings, and only occasional flashes of colour in the red socks of the waiters, Eurydice’s chintz dress or the vivid fuschia pink costume of the Princess in the closing scenes – creates a highly concentrated effect, allowing one to focus on the drama. And then, of course, there is Glass’s hypnotic, spooling music, its unexpected harmonic shifts creating moments of tension and release, as richly-hued and emotionally varied as Schubert (for this reviewer at least!).

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Jennifer France as The Princess (photo © Catherine Ashmore)

Here the Orpheus myth is given a more relatable, contemporary reading: set in post-war Paris, Orphée is a self-absorbed poet who has become passé, who writes but “does not write”, and who has lost his creative impulse. He craves immortality and believes this can be achieved through his implication in the death of Cégeste, a young, successful poet, played with an appropriately teenage sulleness by Anthony Gregory. Though married to Eurydice, who is expecting their child, Orphée falls in love with the enigmatic Princess (Jennifer France), who, representing Death, lures him into the Underworld, via Resistance-style radio broadcasts, and with the assistance of the chauffeur Heurtebise (Nicky Spence). After the vivid black and white of Paris and its noisy bustling cafés where the poets, artists and intellectuals hang out, here the Underworld is a strange shadowy place of crumbling, bombed out buildings and crazed souls (Albert Einstein makes an appearance, a pleasing nod to Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach).

Nicholas Lester as Orphée with Sarah Tynan Eurydice (Photo: DONALD COOPER/PHOTOSTAGE)

“We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death,” wrote Jean Cocteau – and in this production the mirror, as both a reflection of ourselves and our own immortality, Glass’s reflection on Cocteau’s film and Cocteau’s reflections on notions of fame and reputation, becomes central to the visual narrative. Physically, a mirror is the entrance (and exit) to the Underworld, and it becomes a perilous piece of interior decoration when Orphée and Eurydice are allowed to return from the Underworld on the condition that Orphée does not ever look at Eurydice’s face. A large empty frame, which glides across the stage at intervals, serves the double purpose of “framing” the narrative while also reminding us that this opera is based on a film: in effect, it acts as a freeze-frame to capture significant moments; the projections reinforce this.

Although conceived on a small scale, Netia Jones’ production turns this intimate, intense drama into a cinematic spectacular. While some of the vocal colour of the original French libretto is lost in this new English translation, there are some entertaining, witty and genuinely poignant moments, and given the profound, philosophical nature of the Orpheus myth, and Cocteau’s eccentric film, this retelling is satisfyingly human and accessible. There is also a fleeting reference to Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a fragment of the famous ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ in a flute solo, which neatly connects this to the opera which opened ENO’s 2019/20 season.

There are fine performances by all the lead parts. Nicholas Lester as Orphée is petulant and narcisstic, though increasingly sympathetic towards the close. Sarah Tynan plays Eurydice as the vulnerable, wounded, ignored wife, while Jennifer France as the Princess is haughty and histrionic. But it is Heurtebise the chauffeur, sung by Nicky Spence, who really steals the show, at once obsequious in his duty to the Princess but also tender and caring in his love for Eurydice.

In sum, this is an exquisitely playful, poignant production, with some genuine hair-standing moments, and an accessible, convincing drama that may leave you wondering what really lies on the other side of that mirror in the hallway……


Orphee continues at ENO/London Coliseum until 29 November



Baroque in our time


Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36)

Christmas is nearly upon us and time for the Requiems, the Stabat Maters, to be performed in concert halls and churches up and down the country. Now, more so than ever, audiences, can’t seem to be able to get enough of these religious works. Their familiar musical settings are popular for a reason. Audiences are of course drawn to the sheer gorgeousness of the music. Both lyrical and dramatic, and accessible, even for the first-time concert goer, it is no surprise that Vivaldi, Pergolesi and Handel form an essential part of the choral cannon.

I took myself off to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an evening of ‘Sacred Baroque’ featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Vivaldi’s Gloria. Seeing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform together with opera star, Iestyn Davies, was an enthralling prospect . I had recently seen Davies in Handel’s sell out Agrippina at Royal Opera, had been transfixed by his Ottone and his duet with the wonderful Lucy Crowe.

The Stabat Mater is a choral work however, but with noticeable operatic frills. A sober start develops into one of the most dramatic pieces of its kind. It is a medieval hymn about the grief the Virgin Mary felt for her son at his crucifixion. There have been many Stabat Mater musical settings but it is Pergolesi’s composition which most people remember. My first experience of the sublime work was  in sensurround sound in a cinema in Paris. I still remember my teenage mind been blown away by hearing it in Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall the OAE musicians walked out from the wings. There is something so aesthetically pleasing about a compact baroque ensemble, the period instruments, the neat harpsichord with tiny keyboard; the violins, violas with their reddish hues, wind instruments. All of this in a beautiful setting. I hadn’t been to the QEH auditorium since its tasteful restoration. Wood panelling everywhere and walls that stretch back in accordion-like fashion from the stage to sharpen the acoustic.


Queen Elizabeth Hall

A man walked out, clearly not a member of the ensemble. Had Iestyn Davies, ‘the star draw’ bowed out at the last minute? I held my breath. Soprano, Katherine Watson, was nursing a cold, we were told. But she had decided to go ahead and sing the Pergolesi and not Vivaldi’s Gloria, scheduled after the interval. 

The audience’s relief was palpable. Would Watson’s voice hold though? She appeared in a ravishing dress of midnight blue, putting on a brave face. Davies meanwhile, with gelled, sticking out hair, looked positively boyish in his close-fitting suit. With a poppy in his lapel to remind us of Armistice Day, he was all set for Pergolesi’s melancholic piece.

The opening section of Stabat Mater set the sombre mood with each voice taking turns to express sorrow in ever rising and interlocking dissonances. In the duets, Davies, seem to display great emotional intelligence, careful to calibrate his voice with Watson’s soprano. Cold notwithstanding, Watson’s voice is outstanding; lyrical, with a divine quality, and yet she was singing at three-quarter mast. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for her in 2020.

As you would expect, Iestyn, made light of the tricky vocal ornamentation and acrobatics that Pergolesi’s music demands. The counter-tenor’s mastery is awe inspiring, his enunciation superb and all the while he manages to maintain that centred core. Even more fascinating however was to see him connect with the audience, swivelling his body round almost one hundred and eighty degrees, working the whole room. You cannot underestimate the impact of really engaging with your audience these days. It is the secret to building up a solid following which Davies has done and needs to continue to do as he’ll be leaving these shores for a while to sing in the US.

Other highlights were oboe-player extraordinaire, OAE’s Katharina Sprekelsen, showing mastery of her instrument in Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor.

Soprano, Rowan Pierce meanwhile demonstrated a purity and sweetness of voice in Domine Deus, rex coelestis (O Lord god, heavenly king) in Vivaldi’s Gloria.  Vivaldi’s upbeat, celebratory composition was the perfect antidote to the heart-rending Stabat Mater.

The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, many of whom are soloists in their own right, showed complete command of their craft and their voices were well-balanced throughout. Together with the OAE orchestra, and under Steven Devine’s direction, the overall effect was a heady combination of professionalism and soul.

I very much look forward to the continuation of Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment’s Salvation and Damnation season in 2020. See here  Highly recommended.



Monumental Messiaen: Steven Osborne at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and profound work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus) is one of the greatest works in the pianist’s repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such titans as Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale. It is one of the most extraordinary and ground-breaking works in twentieth-century piano repertoire, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), and yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable.

It is, above all else, an expression of Messiaen’s deeply-held Catholic faith – even more so than the Quator pour le fin du temp – a faith which involved sound and silence, beauty and terror, joy, love and an all-embracing sense of awe. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not have to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work. Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music in a way that makes it more accessible through his use of recurring motifs and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and chocolate-box cards: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles, and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

All twenty movements are constructed around three distinctive themes. The first, the Theme of God, a slow-moving chordal motif, heard first in the opening Regard (Regard du Père/Gaze of the Father). It recurs in V, XI and XV, and is always sonorous, luminous and profound. The second theme, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, first appears in Regard II. Turbulent and fractured, it signifies the beginning and the end of Christ’s life. The final theme, the Theme of Chords, is a sequence of four chords which are used in various ways throughout the entire work, most obviously in Regard XIV. In the final movement, all three themes are brought together.

Silence also plays a significant role in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. In some movements, the silences are like breaths or moments of hushed contemplation. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements too (Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist), with chatterings and squawks, trills and shrills in the upper registers, yet always used melodically rather than for pure effect. There are even references to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (Regard de l’Esprit de joie/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy), and later a hint of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Another important aspect is Messiaen’s “flashes”, colourful chords and clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”. To me, these are akin to the lines of stigmata found in paintings of artists such as Giotto, as well as the golden halos and symbolic devices found on Greek and Russian Orthodox icons. In the music we also hear tolling bells and carillon chimes, complex rhythmic motifs, and references to devotional texts, numerology, and Hinduism, as well as deeply portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate. These aspects informed much of the composer’s thinking and became recurring elements in his later works. It was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and is the only sacred work he wrote for solo piano. It also holds the rather special distinction of being the longest piece of solo sacred piano music ever written (Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques and religieuses is the next longest, at 90 minutes).

The composer gives very clear directions and markings in the score to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the kind of sound he envisaged. For example, the recurring themes are marked each time their appear, and Messiaen indicates particular instruments too: the xylophone Regarde de la Vierge, bells in Noel, and the tam tam (a gong-like instrument) and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages.

At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake such a task for it places immense technical and musical demands on the pianist. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed in full.

British pianist Steven Osborne has been playing this work for around 20 years now (and has made an acclaimed recording of it as well for Hyperion) and believes that it should be played without interruption to create “a deeper sense of engagement with the work as a whole, for both myself and the listener.” Becuase of his long association with the music, Osborne plays with an assured “settledness” and his deep understanding of the work enables him to create a cohesive whole. As a listener, one feels at once totally at ease with him on this epic musical and emotional voyage yet also acutely alert, as he is, to every shift in harmony and tonal colour, every nuance and emotion. Thus, the music feels freshly wrought, as new sonorities, new meanings are revealed.

He has a restrained virtuosity which puts the music front and centre, and his every gesture is freighted with meaning. He creates an extraordinary range of colours and tone – translucent filigree arabesques, shimmering, flickering trills, brilliant chirruping birdsong, plangent bass chords, rumbling, rolling Lisztian arpeggios….. And all despatched with an almost effortlesss sprezzatura. The performance was perfectly paced, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the extraordinarily powerful cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. The rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy. The long silence at the end before the applause, as we meditated on what we had heard, was a mark of our respect for performer, music and composer, further confirmed by a standing ovation.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – Olivier Messiaen

Steven Osborne, piano

6 November 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre


Umpteenth revival of Jonathan Miller’s Mikado at ENO


1986 wasn’t a particularly memorable year in the grand scheme of things. In January Spain and Portugal joined the European Community (as it then was), in July Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey and in October Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially opened the M25 motorway. I seem to remember spending a large part of it looking for a job. Nor was I the only one on his uppers: the English National Opera was going through one of its periodic financial meltdowns and badly needed a sure-fire hit to keep the bailiffs away. Fortunately Peter Jonas, then running ENO, had already met with Jonathan Miller to discuss a new version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado or the Town of Titipu’. The rest, as they say,  is opera history.

Reportedly, Miller’s response when he and Jonas first toyed with the idea over dinner at the Camden Brasserie was: ‘it’s pure Duck Soup!’ He decided to jettison all the Japanese stuff which had plagued most productions, amateur and professional, since the D’Oyly Carte days. Out went the kimonos, kowtowing and tea ceremony, in came tuxes, Busby Berkeley dance routines and palm-court orchestra. The late Stefanos Lazaridis’s all-cream set locates the action to a swish resort hotel circa 1930. Sue Blane’s costumes are equally opulent and there are numerous changes: the ENO wardrobe department must work flat out on Mikado nights. The resulting all-singing, all-dancing crowd-pleaser still packs a perennial punch.


ENO The Mikado 2019, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Soraya Mafi, (c) Genevieve Girling


Bestriding this revival like a Colossus, as he has done for nearly thirty years, is Richard Suart, whose Ko-Ko (‘The Lord High Executioner’) channels Max Wall and Leonard Sachs from the Good Old Days in a richly comic performance. Suart freely admits that the role has been the backbone of his career and has now written a history of the production, ‘Mikado Memories’. He gets strong support from Andrew Shore as Pooh-Ba and Jonathan McGovern as Pish-Tush, while Sir John Tomlinson, more used to Wagner than to G&S, dons the Mikado fat suit. Also deserving of mention are the romantic leads, Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Nanki-Poo) and Soraya Mafi (Yum-Yum); I particularly enjoyed their pitch-perfect singing of the first act duet, ‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’. And the ENO orchestra, chorus and dancers are all splendid, of course. For the rest, everyone knows Yum-Yum’s self-congratulatory ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ or Ko-Ko’s arch ‘Willow, Tit-Willow’ but how many people remember Princess Katisha’s moving lament ‘Alone, and Yet Alive’, beautifully sung here by mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard?


ENO The Mikado 2019, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Richard Suart, Andrew Shore, (c) Genevieve Girling


Truth be hold, Gilbertian Topsy-turvydom does start to wear a bit thin with me after a while, nor is it quite compensated for either by Marx Brothers slapstick or high-kicking chambermaids, although there’s comfort to be had from what must be some of Arthur Sullivan’s best musical numbers. And without doubt Miller’s is a helluva production which should be good for a few seasons yet.

By convention, this Mikado regularly updates Ko-Ko’s recital, early in Act One, of his names of potential victims – ‘they’d none of ’em be missed!’ High on the list this time (Suart writes it himself) are Raab, Rees-Mogg, Bojo, Bercow & Brexit, all of which had them rolling in the Coliseum aisles. It’s a timely reminder that this evergreen favourite is no more about Japan than Brexit, when you really come down to it, is about Brussels. They’re actually both about us.



The Mikado at English National Opera to 30 November 2019

Header image: ENO The Mikado 2019, Cast, John Tomlinson, (c) Genevieve Girling


ENO The Mikado 2019, ENO Chorus, Dancers, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, (c) Genevieve Girling