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The NS Interview: Erin O’Connor, model

“I’ve existed in 2D form for about 15 years”

Do you think we are in a particularly vibrant period for British design and fashion?

The “Best of British” is a positive thing that’s bandied around, but also it’s applied pressure to our country in terms of economic growth. I think we’ve always felt the rest of the world is so much more powerful in terms of being commercially viable, but we can take great pride in our level of creativity. That starts in the fashion colleges, the art colleges, in design – and seems to be unwavering.
Most high-street clothing is made overseas. Did your trip to India with Save the Children show you the downside of a globalised economy?
Most notable are the vulnerable communities. Some of their circumstances have become even more diabolical. The transitional shift of wealth in India has been heavily publicised, and yet it is the vulnerable people [whose] circumstances have become even more challenging. It’s impossible to get your head around the disparity between the two. I don’t want to be too politically aligned to this because I think it’s a humanitarian subject. You’re talking about the welfare of human beings. I want to know how we can support and assist people to make some sort of sustainable change in their lives.
How do you think you can help?
The fact that 300 children under six lose their lives to preventable illnesses every hour is wholly unnecessary. It’s about awareness. I’ve existed in 2D form for the past 15 years as a fashion model, but if that engages people who may recognise me here in the UK, that’s got to help in some way. Ultimately it’s about raising funds and tackling [the subject] in a sensitive way so as not to alienate anybody.
You previously visited Delhi as an ambassador of the Self-Employed Women’s Association [a trade union]. Are you drawn to co-operatives?
It’s helping people help themselves. That trip didn’t feel like a charity mission, more like a collaboration, which seemed to fit well because there was an identifiable purpose for me to be there: to bring back their collective voice, as self-employed women, to speak to retailers in the UK who have influence here. It’s humbling to be welcomed into a space where women are willing to trust you and be open-minded. But really they wanted to [talk] about boys, babies, hair, what colour clothing they would like to put me in. In terms of bonding, that’s a universal thing for all women.
The debate around the UK’s aid funding to India is complex. Does the responsibility for aid lie with individuals or government?
[In India] the disparity grows between the affluent and those below the line, and it’s very difficult to identify where the aid is actually being given and how effective that aid is. [Where I visited] there was immunisation and access to deep-rooted communities, but still a social barrier to awareness. Perhaps there is a lack of trust, understandably, but it falls on [charities] to assist the work of volunteers, the professionals, the doctors, the nurses.
Your career has been based on the visual image. Is telling a real-life story more powerful than statistics?
This is their reality. You come to question a sense of moral alignment and whether or not you are exploiting human vulnerability, or whether you are going in to portray a vital story that needs to be shared. More brutally, I think to raise awareness and funds you have to have that reality.
What shocked you most when faced with that level of vulnerability?
I couldn’t comprehend how it would feel to have to consider those daily options: do I feed myself or do I feed my child? Maternal mortality is so unnecessary but when you’re there it becomes your day-to-day grind of trying to stay alive. There are no options for a lot of women. What we learned was quite startling – the priority of people who get fed first. Primarily it’s the fathers and sons. The highest mortality rate is infant girls, because they aren’t perceived as being as . . . There’s a pecking order.
So is this a feminist issue?
We won’t get economic growth if we don’t look after our mothers and the potential of the next generation. They need to be prioritised.
Were the people you met suspicious or welcoming?
Very welcoming. You can imagine: because I’m six foot and the slums they live in are six foot at most my height was a real point of conversation.
Is there anything you’d rather forget?
No! I love to remember, as I find it so easy to forget these days.
Was there a plan?
My plan growing up was to leave home and try not to panic. I always knew that to strive to be self-sufficient was an important ambition.
Do you vote?
Are we all doomed?
Temporarily gloomy.
Interview by Alice Gribbin

Defining Moments

1978 Born in Walsall, West Midlands
1995 Talented-spotted by modelling agent while on a school trip
1996 First published fashion shoot is for the photographer Juergen Teller in i-D
2007 Is appointed vice-chairman of British Fashion Council
2008 Opens her “models’ sanctuary” in Covent Garden, London
2009 Face of Marks & Spencer with Twiggy
2012 Moves to New York


Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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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