Eli­jah Moshinsky the prodi­gal son of Aus­tralian opera re­turns for Don Car­los

Opera direc­tor Eli­jah Moshinsky re­turns to Australia, and to Don Car­los, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - INSIDE - Don Car­los will run at the Mel­bourne Arts Cen­tre from May 20 to 29, then at the Syd­ney Opera House from July 15 to Au­gust 15.

Eli­jah Moshinsky has un­fin­ished busi­ness in Australia. The Shang­hai-born, Mel­bourne-raised, Lon­don-based direc­tor was last here 16 years ago when he staged Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Car­los for Opera Australia. His stay in Syd­ney was as po­lit­i­cally and emo­tion­ally in­tense as the opera. He was badly rat­tled at the time: his mother was dy­ing and he was fly­ing to Mel­bourne ev­ery week­end to be with her. He stirred con­tro­versy when he at­tacked mu­si­cal stan­dards in the Opera House orches­tra pit, prompt­ing mu­sic direc­tor Si­mone Young, who was con­duct­ing Don Car­los, and for­mer mu­sic direc­tor Richard Bonynge to jump to the mu­si­cians’ de­fence. The mu­si­cians’ union got in­volved, and ABC ra­dio’s cur­rent af­fairs pro­grams AM and PM cov­ered the skir­mish as an un­fold­ing news story.

“I was not in a good state when I was di­rect­ing the opera here, and the opera was not a suc­cess,” Moshinsky says now with star­tling frank­ness. “A lot of the prob­lems were that my per­son­al­ity wasn’t click­ing with other peo­ple’s.”

He also feels in­debted to Opera Australia’s for­mer artis­tic direc­tor Mof­fatt Ox­en­bould, who had re­peat­edly in­vited him to Australia to di­rect vis­ually rich, lively and popular pro­duc­tions of The Bar­ber of Seville, Werther, Beatrice and Bene­dict, and more. “In his last sea­son as artis­tic direc­tor, he asked what opera I most wanted to do,” Moshinsky says. “No one does Don Car­los be­cause it’s so hard, but he be­lieved in me. And then I felt I let him down.”

Moshinsky is talk­ing at Opera Australia’s Syd­ney HQ, where he is work­ing on a re­vi­sion of that orig­i­nal Don Car­los, which opens in Mel­bourne this month. Last time he was here, he still had the dark-eyed charisma of his youth. To­day, at 69, he is grey­ing and strug­gling phys­i­cally. He speaks slowly and sheer strength of will seems to be keep­ing him go­ing. He re­peat­edly refers to him­self as a 70-year-old, jump­ing the gun, and as a sur­vivor.

The can­cer he has been deal­ing with since 1984 roared back in 2000, and now he is per­ma­nently un­der siege. His blood plasma is re­placed ev­ery month. The long haul across the world has been be­yond him all that time and he was able to come this time only be­cause his on­col­o­gist or­gan­ised for him to have the pro­ce­dure at the Peter MacCal­lum Can­cer Cen­tre while he is in Mel­bourne.

He re­sists ques­tions about his health. “I don’t want my life to be a dis­ease,” he says.

But when re­minded that other peo­ple’s brav­ery is en­cour­ag­ing for those deal­ing with can­cer, Moshinsky re­gains mo­men­tum and starts on what his or­deal has taught him about life, art, and even about this opera. “I feel I un­der­stand more about suf­fer­ing,” he says. “It’s partly to do

May 9-10, 2015 with ill­ness, partly to do with grow­ing up, partly to do with hav­ing mem­o­ries in a dif­fer­ent way.”

Of Don Car­los he says, “I didn’t un­der­stand the depth of the suf­fer­ing of the char­ac­ters. They were opera char­ac­ters to me. Now the real ex­pe­ri­ences that I have had — the re­grets, the hopes, the need for ideals in a world that ap­pears to be dis­in­te­grat­ing, ab­so­lute com­mit­ment to the ha­tred of au­toc­racy — are much more im­por­tant to me, and the whole ar­gu­ment of whether or­dered so­ci­ety can ex­ist with free­dom. We live in a po­lit­i­cally dif­fer­ent world and this is a po­lit­i­cal opera.” He refers to cur­rent au­to­crats, but doesn’t want them named be­cause he doesn’t like “opera pro­duc­tions that try to make things rel­e­vant”.

Verdi had no such qualms. He based his five­act work, writ­ten in French grand opera style, on Schiller’s epic poem Don Kar­los, In­fant von Spanien, about the son of Phillip II of Spain in the af­ter­math of the 16th-cen­tury Ital­ian war be­tween the Haps­burgs and the Valois. Verdi was deeply in­volved in Italy’s Risorg­i­mento. His name was shouted as an acro­nym for the move- ment’s slo­gan — Viva Vit­to­rio Emanuele Re d’Italia! — and he was elected to par­lia­ment af­ter uni­fi­ca­tion in 1861. All his op­eras are deeply po­lit­i­cal: even a ro­man­tic tragedy such as La Travi­ata says a lot about the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion of women in the 19th cen­tury.

Don Car­los is even more point­edly so. Napoleon III, who ruled France at the time of the opera’s pre­miere in Paris in 1867, was seen to face a sim­i­lar prob­lem of po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy to Phillip’s. In fact, Napoleon’s wife walked out of the piv­otal auto-da-fe scene, in which Don Car­los draws his sword on Phillip and Phillip’s guards refuse to ar­rest him.

Verdi tried but failed to break his con­tract for the work with the Paris Opera af­ter Italy’s mil­i­tary de­feat at the hands of the Haps­burgs, who gave the Veneto to France as a re­ward for its sup­port.

“Imag­ine what plea­sure for an Ital­ian who loves his coun­try to find him­self now in Paris,” Verdi said at the time. The day af­ter the pre­miere, he wrote words that strangely echo Moshinsky’s now. “It was not a suc­cess!” he wrote. “I do not know what it will be in the fu­ture, and I would not be sur­prised if things change.”

Things are cer­tainly chang­ing here. “I’m rein­vent­ing the opera, I’m not re­viv­ing it,” Moshinsky says. Though he has eco­nom­i­cally kept the sets, he has changed some of the cloth­ing. “I de­cided to go down the path of try­ing to cap­ture the world of Ve­lasquez as a metaphor for the Spain that ex­isted.” The pri­mary changes are to some of the women’s cos­tumes, sug­gest­ing cara­paces and re­strict­ing their move­ment.

He has staged Don Car­los twice since the Syd­ney pro­duc­tion of 1999 — in Toulouse, France, and in Seoul — and has con­tin­ued to wres­tle with spe­cific dif­fi­cul­ties of French-style grand opera: rec­on­cil­ing the grand sweep of his­tory re­quired with the pri­vate con­flicts of in­di­vid­u­als “with­out it be­ing ba­nal, or hol­low, or over-ges­tu­ral”, and neu­tral­is­ing the anachro­nism that his­tori­cism has be­come.

“His­tory is no longer treated as an im­por­tant in­tel­lec­tual idea in the post­mod­ern age. We’re living in a con­stant present,” he says.

“In the 19th cen­tury there was a sense of his­tory un­rolling, and a be­lief in the lib­eral idea that his­tory would some­how lead to lib­erty and a bet­ter life. I have to go back and try to con­vince peo­ple to be in­ter­ested in that idea of the un­rolling of his­tory.”

Lib­er­al­ism has been a life­long in­ter­est. An un­con­ven­tional boy who didn’t quite fit into a fam­ily and a so­ci­ety rel­a­tively un­in­ter­ested in the arts, Moshinsky came alive when he won a schol­ar­ship to Ox­ford and be­gan a doc­tor­ate with the em­i­nent the­o­rist of lib­er­al­ism, the Rus­sian philoso­pher Isa­iah Ber­lin.

Moshinsky had been born in Shang­hai to Rus­sian Jewish par­ents flee­ing pogroms. The fam­ily came to Australia when he was five, and he and his two broth­ers grew up here. His broth­ers still live in Mel­bourne.

At Ox­ford he stud­ied the work of the Rus­sian lib­eral Alexander Herzen, who was, Moshinsky points out, a neo-Hegelian. (And who, it must be said, is re­ferred to more of­ten as a so­cial­ist than as a lib­eral.)

“The Rus­sians took on Hegel. They were con­cerned with this in­ter­est­ing ques­tion of his­tory, whether Rus­sia had to go through the same stages of his­tory as West­ern Europe or whether they could jump. This is where Lenin came in ...”

Moshinsky was al­ready deeply in­volved in theatre. He had di­rected plays at the Mel­bourne Uni­ver­sity Union. In 1965, he joined the Mel­bourne New Theatre run by John El­lis, “a won­der­ful man, my in­spi­ra­tion and men­tor”. He re­calls designing a pro­duc­tion of Brecht’s Mother Courage there: “We took it as se­ri­ously as if we were (Brecht’s) Ber­lin En­sem­ble.”

He had no in­ten­tion of mak­ing it a ca­reer



when he went to Eng­land. “I was never go­ing to be a theatre direc­tor, I was go­ing to be an aca­demic of some kind,” he says.

It was Ber­lin who nudged him to­wards Verdi. “We were dis­cussing the his­tory of lib­er­al­ism, and the his­tory of free will and po­lit­i­cal ac­tion in 19th-cen­tury phi­los­o­phy, and he pointed out to me that there is no thinker who was as ex­ten­sive in his con­cern and view of the world as Verdi, apart from Tol­stoy.

“And Isa­iah Ber­lin opened my eyes to Verdi as an eth­i­cal and moral thinker about his­tory. This is what we’re deal­ing with — all the is­sues of free­dom, the rights of the in­di­vid­ual, the no­bil­ity of love, the tran­scen­dence of love.”

Verdi’s char­ac­ters also have what Moshinsky calls “an im­per­a­tive”: not a dry old philo­soph­i­cal con­cept like Kant’s cat­e­gor­i­cal im­per­a­tive, but an im­per­a­tive of pas­sion. “The way (the char­ac­ters) re­act to each other is the plot,” he ex­plains. “And Verdi is in­ter­ested in sit­u­a­tions which are ab­so­lutely ir­re­solv­able, and the hero­ism and no­bil­ity with which the char­ac­ters face their des­tiny.”

Moshinsky “al­most” fin­ished his doc­tor­ate in Ox­ford, he says, but the Lon­don stage lured him away. “I don’t have the brain to be an aca­demic, and I don’t have the in­ter­est. I didn’t like the ca­reer or the peo­ple in­volved in aca­demic life. Ex­cept Isa­iah Ber­lin, who was a great in­spi­ra­tion — he made me think clearly.”

He is not much more flat­ter­ing about life in the per­form­ing arts.

“Theatre can be the place for a very nar­cis­sis­tic and phony life, and I didn’t want to get in­volved with that,” he says. The re­sult, he says, is that his ca­reer has not been stel­lar, but it has been steady and it gave him his rai­son d’etre. He men­tions the word “im­per­a­tive” again. “I had to be an artist. It’s a vo­ca­tion. I couldn’t be an ac­coun­tant or a lawyer.”

In fact, he has worked in the most rar­efied realms of opera. He did an Otello with Car­los Kleiber and Placido Domingo, for ex­am­ple, and many pro­duc­tions with Colin Davis, “who I adored”. He did four op­eras with the great Ge­org Solti, whom he also adored. “We adored each other,” he says. “And we’d shout. He’d say, ‘Moshinsky, that’s ter­ri­ble on stage!’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t look, Ge­org!’ ”

He be­comes re­flec­tive. Does reli­gion give him pur­pose, or does art re­place reli­gion for him? He is Jewish, he says, but equiv­o­cates. “Well, I had my sons bar mitz­va­hed and all that,” he says ten­ta­tively. “I’m not re­li­gious, but I have had this con­stant de­bate about the moral life and it’s im­pos­si­ble to do that and dis­count the pos­si­bil­ity of what might be called reli­gion.

“But there’s a lot about reli­gion I don’t like. I don’t like dem­a­gogues, and that means even athe­ists ... and ve­g­ans.”

When I start re­fer­ring to “Him up there”, how­ever, Moshinsky replies more firmly, “No, no, I’m not re­li­gious. Ba­si­cally I’m a ra­tion­al­ist.” He refers back to the opera, at the point when the Grand In­quisi­tor wants Phillip to kill Don Car­los. “And Phillip says, ‘But how can I kill my own son?’ And (the In­quisi­tor) says, ‘God did that.’ It’s one of the most chill­ing mo­ments.”

For a man who hates pub­lic­ity so much he didn’t want to be in­ter­viewed for this story — Opera Australia talked him into it, he says — he has set­tled in com­fort­ably to our chat, which stretches well be­yond the al­lo­cated hour. He has be­come al­most med­i­ta­tive, and one gets the feel­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence of ill­ness has made that his pri­mary mood.

Un­like the 18th and 19th-cen­tury ro­man­ti­cists with whom he has so of­ten en­gaged, Moshinsky does not be­lieve art can re­place reli­gion.

“You don’t need a re­place­ment,” he says. “You have to live a mean­ing­ful life. When you re­alise how ten­u­ous your life is, you can’t live just for the plea­sure of the mo­ment. You can’t live just for mak­ing more money.

“You can’t live for life­style. There has to be some­thing more.

“And for me, I found it in ex­plor­ing th­ese works of lit­er­a­ture and art, ve­hi­cles in which to dis­cuss and ex­plore the world.

“It’s a form of phi­los­o­phy, ba­si­cally. It doesn’t re­place reli­gion. You don’t wor­ship an opera.”

Eli­jah Moshinsky, left; fac­ing page, from left, Diego Torre, Mil­i­jana Nikolic and Jose Carbo in cos­tume for Opera Australia’s Don Car­los

Eli­jah Moshinsky in 1982

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