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Once upon a time in America

Barb Jungr's tour diary.

The first sign of change is evident straight off the plane into JFK in the seemingly endless queue of sleepy-eyed travellers snaking from the Immigration Hall. At my cubicle the delightful official Elan explained (after quizzing my visa, “Are you an opera singer? Lots of opera singers have your same kind of visa”) that the lines were due “to Obama”. I look bemused. Didn’t we hear about the cuts? Elan and his team have had all their overtime scuppered and now have to take an extra day of unpaid holiday every fortnight. He can’t wait for the summer and the tourists to arrive. “This place will be crazy then,” he smiled, “someone will probably go postal.”

My TV morning news reveals that the refuse issue in Queens is reaching catastrophic proportions. But you don’t need to be in Queens to see that litter has increased exponentially. I saw my first rat yesterday at 5pm running down the subway line at 49th street station. No one paid it any attention. It was quite a small rat, as they go.

Meanwhile the landscape of the city is changing fast. In Hell’s Kitchen, rebranded as Clinton, where I am staying, the young upwardly mobile professionals are in evidence, slowly heterosexualising the once rainbowbannered area. Beware, jerk chicken, Whole Foods is coming to Harlem.


We are stranded at the airport. The snow that threatened us the past two days has conveniently arrived the morning of our flight to Indianapolis. By Norwegian standards, this is nothing. By Newark standards, however, we are “on indefinite hold”. Tracy, my accompanist, told me she had once spent a night here in similar conditions and “we had a fun time”. There’s nothing to worry about, she says, “I have cash, there’s food”. If I eat another sandwich, I will have to buy an extra seat on the plane.


Looking out on to “the Circle” from my hotel window in Indianapolis I see the most cars and traffic – almost a jam – that I have seen here since arriving. I had begun to think that most of the city had been spirited away by some elemental force but they are all out, in swish polished cars, driving about. To where? To what? I head downstairs to the third-floor Crystal Terrace, where I am about to sing Dylan’s songs to my audience with the war memorial commemorating the civil and other war dead towering behind me. I can’t wait to get to “With God on Our Side”.

Walking down the concourse at Indianapolis’s new airport, before our flight back to Newark, Tracy and I are targeted by an elderly man with a good line in chat. I order a bagel from the Copper Moon Coffee stand. “You’re going to New York and you’re ordering a bagel in Indianapolis?” he quips. “I’m from London,” I reply, “my bagel standards are probably lower than yours.” Across the aisle on the plane, I learn that Gordon was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge in 1962, and we while away the journey chatting about everything from The Wire through the Profumo affair, Beethoven’s Sonatas, Downton Abbey and Austen to our favourite cathedrals. Mine is Lincoln; his Durham. “I knew you two looked interesting,” he says, as we part company.


Toronto looks much as it did in many early Cronenberg films; I feel right at home in the grey, slight snow falling, and we are checked into the cleanest hotel – I’m in Shivers! There by the door is an antiseptic hand-cleaning dispenser so you can get rid of all your lurking invisible germs before you even check in! Hugh’s Room, where we are playing, is the kind of venue I wish was in every town. Staffed by handsome young people, male and female, in black, obviously. Great vibe and packed to the gills when we play with people who love jazz! They queue afterwards to say hello, polite, generous-hearted, warm people.

Back to New York for Joe’s Pub, the barroom music and cabaret space in the legendary Public Theater. It’s my only New York show this trip and my fingers are crossed. And we’re packed, they’re lively and chic and I finish my mini tour on a high at a Broadway diner with friends, before heading through the icy winds to the subway. Tonight, it’s too cold even for the rats.


I return to freezing London and rehearsals for a song cycle by my friend Robb Johnson about his grandfather’s experiences in the First World War. We travel to Ghent to record it – I’m happy to visit my beloved Jacques Brel’s flatlands. Most restaurants are closed for Easter and the small city seems quiet. Apart from the music-making, which is intense and joyous, Ghent is glorious for the baguettes our producers bring us on their daily lunch run and the breathtakingly beautiful Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altar panels in St Bavo Cathedral. Back in Pimlico I find spring has arrived with a welcome party of daffodils and a squirrel in the communal garden, and on the Thames in the morning sunshine, a solitary swan.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis