Ojai at Berkeley Celebrates Josephine Baker, Simone Weil

by Jean Schiffman

Music director Peter Sellars selects three works by women to represent the festival’s theme.

One of the most exciting things about the 21st century, says internationally acclaimed, ground-breaking opera and theater director Peter Sellars, is the number of women in leadership and visionary roles.

Accordingly, as music director of this year’s 70th annual Ojai Music Festival (alongside such other gigs as director-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic), he selected three works—in collaboration with Ojai artistic director Thomas W. Morris and Cal Performances artistic/executive director Matias Tarnopolsky—that represent the Festival’s theme, “women’s voices.”

The Festival opens in Southern California before moving to U.C. Berkeley’s Cal Performances this month.

“La Passion de Simone,” which receives its American premiere at Ojai, is Finnish-born Parisian composer Kaija Saariaho’s chamber version (for an orchestra of 19) of a larger piece, which she composed at Sellars’ behest for the Vienna Festival.

10 years ago, and which he directed, both then and now. With a libretto in French by Amin Maalouf, it examines, through the formal structure of the biblical Stations of the Cross, the fraught life of 20th-century French radical activist and philosopher Simone Weil. It is sung by American soprano Julia Bullock, with new-music group ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble; Sellars has characterized their work as “radically dangerous, detailed, heartfelt”) and the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (“classical music of the future, not the past,” proclaims Sellars). Berkeley Symphony music director Joana Carneiro conducts.

Julia Bullock - Credit: Christian Steiner.

The Festival world premiere “Josephine Baker: A Portrait”looks at another 20th-century icon, the African-American jazz/pop singer and dancer who emigrated to Paris and became world famous. Musician/composer Tyshawn Sorey arranged seven of Baker’s songs, wrote new music as well and plays piano and drums for the performance, along with ICE, which commissioned the piece. Julia Bullock sings.

“In The Sounds of Tahrir Square, Cairo,”Egyptian singer, composer, guitarist and actress Dina El Wedidi and her band re-create the ambiance of the Arab Spring “and its echo.”

Weil and Baker were completely different from each other, says Sellars, on the phone from Lyon, France. “Both were difficult women but unbelievably and relentlessly courageous. It’s that amazing thing: two lives…astonishing parallels and points of solidarity.”

Simone Weil (1909-1943) rejected her Jewish roots and became a Christian mystic, active in leftist causes. Although graduating from the Sorbonne, she worked as a laborer to understand the working class. She starved herself to death while living in London (official cause: cardiac arrest) by refusing to accept more food than the French victims of Nazi occupation.

Weil was a hugely important and influential figure to Sellars as a young man. The same is true for Saariaho, a multi-award-winning composer. She discovered Weil’s “Gravity and Grace” as a teenager, and when she moved to Germany to study composition, that was one of two books she brought with her. Then, when she settled in Paris and learned French, she read more of Weil’s writing. Weil’s ideas, she writes via email, “take our thoughts away from routine and everyday life, remind [us] of the essentials in our existence and the world around us.” She considers “La Passion” her most important work—“some kind of a spiritual testament”—and says, “I am trying to focus with my music on some of the most important aspects of life and spiritual values, such as love, empathy and justice.”

Kaija Saariaho - Credit: Priska Ketterer

Saariaho dedicated the piece to her
children, and created this chamber version for her son Aleksi, who has a small opera company in France. “It’s very personal for her, with the next generation in mind,” comments Sellars. He exults, on a YouTube promoting “La Passion,” that Saariaho has an unmistakable voice, that her music vibrates with color: “A strange, haunted feeling opens you into this immense landscape…full of secrets, clues, messages.”

Says Saariaho, “In spite of [Weil’s] nearly inhuman perseverance and constant efforts, she finally failed so sadly in her life that she wanted to die. In my work for the piece, I was trying to enter all those ambivalent, secret and sad places…”

For soprano Julia Bullock, whom Sellars calls “a comet in the classical music world,” and who appeared in “La Passion” last November in the Berlin Philharmonic world premiere, the music—written for Dawn Upshaw in the longer version—is one of the hardest that she has ever learned, full of rapid emotional shifts. “It’s not a straightforward score,” she explains, on the phone from New York. It’s rhythmically complicated and includes some spoken text taken from Weil’s writings; the maneuver between song and speech requires its own vocal discipline, she notes.

Of working with Sellars, who first directed her in Henry Purcell’s “The Indian Queen” in 2013, she says, “He’s not coming from a safe, decorative place; he challenges everyone involved, including himself. He brings out the extremes in human experiences.” For Bullock, that means being willing to go from her “most fierce” to her “most broken” place. “I trust him completely,” she adds. “If I’m not sure I can frame something safely, he helps me work through it in a humane and beautiful way.”

Like trying to understand Weil’s dire, sacrificial life choices, looking at the life of Josephine Baker had its special complexities for Bullock, who is African-American. She is acutely aware of the exploitation that Baker experienced even as she established a triumphant career in Paris.

Baker (1906-1975), who grew up poor, refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States. She gained French citizenship in 1937, was an active civil rights proponent and assisted the French Resistance during the war. Yet, says Bullock, as the first black woman entertainer to become a world-famous star, “She took on the role of a wild, exotic African creature although she was not African. Dancing onstage practically nude…. She was the highest paid entertainer in the world in Paris [at a time when America’s ] Jim Crow laws were still very much in place. She was exploited—but she took advantage of it.” Bullock will not impersonate Baker, with whom she feels a strong connection: Both grew up in St. Louis, danced as youngsters, moved to New York—but there their paths diverged. “She lived during the Jazz Age in France, and never got to sing the blues,” observes Bullock, “or any music indicative of black people.” Similarly to her role in “La Passion,” through the music Bullock reflects
on the vagaries of Baker’s life, allowing themes to unfold. “These two women in France at the same time…who seem to deal with the world in polar opposite ways, challenging the world they were living in,” she says, “I want to present them with honor.”

Peter-Sellars- credit-Ruth-Walz

“What’s marvelous is the Josephine Baker material is quite polished French cabaret music hall songs,” says Sellars, “and Tyshawn [Sorey] is one of the extraordinary voices of the next generation. He can move through layers of John Cage and the avant-garde to open up new space in music and in history.” Sorey’s arrangements and additional compositions will reveal Baker in a new way—a nuanced, internal way, “not just the polished exterior.”

To see Bullock, whom he considers “an amazing gift to the new generation,” in both works is revelatory for Sellars. To him, she gives “La Passion” a new “Black Lives Matter” dimension: He envisions
her as a young African-American woman looking at the life of a feminist activist of the previous century and perhaps wondering what we can learn from her sacrifices. “Music and poetry and movement and light all create together something so rich in its experiential nature [that] everyone in the audience will process it in their own way,” he theorizes.

He adds, “What’s exciting for me is the way this next generation of women express themselves. They don’t accept the old categories of what classical music represents. That bodes well for a very great festival.”

La Passion de Simone

June 16

Zellerbach Playhouse, U.C. Berkeley campus

The Sounds of Tahrir Square

June 17

Zellerbach Hall

Josephine Baker: A Portrait

June 18

Zellerbach Playhouse

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