William Berger – Life and Art in the Epic Convergence of Opera, Metal, and Poetry
William Berger is an acclaimed author of countless articles and several books on opera as well as a beloved commentator for the Metropolitan Opera. He can be heard on Met Opera Radio’s Sirius/XM broadcasts and the podcast series “In Focus,” and is responsible for the Met’s Opera Quiz. As a lecturer, he has offered a vast range of online and in-person seminars that bring opera in conversation with other genres, such as literature, film, and his other musical passion, metal. I am grateful that he took the time to share with us what it means to transcend predetermined boundaries of genres, unsettle conditioned attitudes, and create ingeniously. To learn more about William Berger and his work, please click on the link at the end of this interview.
Your mind is a fascinating creative hub where different genres come to play, and conditioned perspectives get dismantled. Which love was born first: opera, metal, writing?
Interesting question. When I was a kid, heavy metal didn’t exist yet. My parents were into classical and other kinds of music. One rule in our house was: if it is for music, just ask, even when we didn’t have money. Once a week, we used to go up to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard and I could have one thing, no questions asked. I also had an uncle who was one of the founding members of the international Gustav Mahler Society and he gave us tickets to the Philharmonic in Los Angeles. New York City Opera was coming to L.A., and I went a lot with my mother and people in the family. So, this was the greatest gift: I didn’t grow up knowing that I wasn’t supposed to like one kind of music or another, and I’m very grateful for it. My older brother and I would go to concerts, and we liked all the popular music from the 60s and 70s. We would listen to music with the neighbor kids and argue about which was the best album and the reactions we had. That turned out to be, in fact, what I do for a living, which is: take any music and talk about how it makes you feel, not about what “good” music is, because who knows? That is a debatable question, and I don’t think there’s any one answer to it.
William Berger speaking in List Hall at The Metropolitan Opera, Feb. 2019 (Photo courtesy of William Berger)
When you write about opera, you bring a breath of fresh air into a type of writing that can sometimes become pedantic. You have a unique voice in your books on Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner. What is your approach to writing about opera?
In writing about opera or any musical work, my approach is very much about what is important in terms of what it can do for a listener. It’s not a musician’s or a musicologist’s approach, and I don’t want it to be. I remember hanging out with some older kids when I was about 12, and they were listening to Yes, the progressive rock band. I never cared for their music particularly, but they were obviously very good, and these older kids who were terrific snobs said: “Well, it doesn’t matter what you think because you’re not a musician.” And I thought: I’m never going to let anybody say that to me again, or to anybody else! It’s the wrong way to approach talking about music. It is just a matter of what do I think about this, how does this make me feel? It’s not that I want everyone to feel like I do. I want to say, this is what can be felt. I talk about the story of an opera, and by story I don’t mean the synopsis. I mean the logos. That also comes from my background in literature, in the hardcore classics like Ovid and Dante and in unpacking texts.
So, you see the logos as incorporating the music as well.
Yes. It’s the music, the words, and more. It’s the story, not the plot. As they say theologically, that’s what there was in the beginning and ever will be. It’s human. “The Word became flesh” means these are not just abstract ideas, but people ideas. Everything you feel as a person is part of that story. That’s why I think everybody has the right to this art, to all art, because it’s just a matter of how human you are. When people say they’re going to approach operas textually, they talk about the libretto which is only a fraction of the story. And I think that English speakers tend to be more literal than others at the opera. There’s a tendency that we have to put a primacy on the word over the idea.
I’m never interested in the libretto as the word; I’m only interested in ideas. Once I started looking at it that way, Mozart/Da Ponte exploded. The words have almost an acoustical meaning. Alfred Einstein, the Mozart scholar, said that, with Mozart and Da Ponte, the words cap off the idea that’s already perfectly expressed in the music. Like in “Fin ch’an dal vino”… there’s no erotic joy in that. It’s addiction, it’s complete compulsion, even if you don’t know the words, you know exactly what that aria is saying. So, a lot of my work is to counter the tendency to not dig below the literal, to take everything at a surface level.
William Berger in the Met radio booth interviewing Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Photo courtesy of William Berger)
How about when you have a libretto in two languages, like in the opera we both love, “Don Carlos/ Don Carlo”? You feel it differently when they sing it in French from when they sing in Italian.
They are two different operas.
There are also nuances of meaning that change from French to Italian, plus the unique sonority of each language as singers negotiate the pronunciation to serve the music. Would you say that, in such a case, the actual words’ meanings and sounds bear more weight on how the story is transmitted and received?
Well, they become two different stories. And all anybody wants to hear when I talk about Don Carlos/ Don Carlo is: which one do I prefer? I try to tell them there’s no one versus the other. There are many versions of both. Yeah, we do need to look at the languages, but we need to look deeper into what we’re hearing in either language and the various editions, because the orchestration changes too, which is really important. I mean, all editions cheat. There is no urtext. Even the night of the premiere it was already in flux. No one has done the same version twice, even if they say they’re going to do the “original” one. At that time, when you had a five-act French opera, you had an intermission between each act. That’s part of the experience, so you can’t say you’re doing that version, if you don’t have that. You’re doing a version of the version. Also, on that night, the lights were on in the auditorium; it was gas light so you could turn it down only a little. We know now that you actually hear something differently depending on what you’re seeing. So, they cannot replicate it and even if they could, you’re not the same. You didn’t come to the theatre in a horse and carriage with that rhythm in your mind, so that when you hear the hunting chords in the Fontainebleau scene, you hear them in a certain way that I don’t when I come on the subway. But although this isn’t what I said twenty years ago in my book, I can now say that I love both the four- and five-act editions. Of course, five acts are better in general just because there’s more of that amazing music.
Yes. I like the woodcutters’ chorus.
I like it too, because again it’s more of that tinta. What is important is to go deeper into what we’re really feeling, hearing, and thinking, not what we think we should be thinking, because there’s a great deal of that. For a long time, and still in the latest reviews, there’s the attitude that the French five-act is intellectually superior and in Italian it’s… “well, you know how Italians are, they’re emotional.” There’s this idea, with a ton of racism in it, that the farther north you’re from in Europe, the more intellectual you are, and the farther south, the more emotional. That’s very ingrained in culture, like “Wagner is brainy and Verdi’s emotional.” No. This is not actually true. What’s important is that it’s okay to like whatever you like but do it because it’s actually what you are feeling.
William Berger (Photo: David Bizic)
You’ve written a libretto for “La Suspendida.” Tell us about this new opera.
It is an opera in jazz and metal. The band Kilter came to me; they are a very highly regarded jazz metal trio. There’s the bass player and main composer, Laurent David, from Paris, then there’s the saxophone player, Ed RosenBerg III, and the drummer, Kenny Grohowski, is someone I’ve known for many years from metal and new classical. They came to me with the vocalist, Andromeda Anarchia, who was trained for opera and became a very extreme black metal singer; black metal is a genre of metal.
The story of the opera is real. It’s about a beautiful Cuban-American young woman, María Elena, in Key West who was treated for tuberculosis by a German doctor who became obsessed with her; she looked like the woman he had seen in his dreams. After she died, he kept her body as his wife and slept with her. When they busted him in 1940, there was a big newspaper story. So, Kilter asked me: “Is this an opera?” I said: this is an opera only if we tell it from her point of view and she’s not a victim. What if she has agency? What if it works for her to be between two worlds, like Schrödinger’s cat? Because, frankly, she didn’t have such a good time in this world; she had been married and had miscarried by 18, and then she was very ill. She was so young and clearly not ready for the next world. There are songs about the doctor, but her story is an opera. There’s only one reason to write an opera: to give more voice to people and ideas that don’t have enough voice, like Violetta Valery, and others… In other words, in that place where we don’t know and can’t know, that’s the best place for opera to come from. So, they said: “Great, write it!” Suspendida refers to María Elena being suspended between worlds.
Did Kilter have the music already?
No. But I loved the way the saxophone player talked about music, so I wrote some songs and then the libretto. And then we sat at the table—this was my favorite thing I’ve ever done—two of the three guys in Kilter and Andromeda, and we drew diagrams, and I told them what I thought the music should sound like. They got involved with other musicians including a chorus in Montreal called The Growlers choir, the world’s first metal chorus. You know, the art of growling and those sorts of vocals… you don’t just get up and do it, it has its own exigencies. Andromeda can go between both classical and growling, and dialogue. She’s amazing! There’s also a string quartet of classical metal crossover, called Seven)Suns, people I’ve known for many years. They and Kilter are the orchestra, and The Growlers the choir. We went to Montreal this summer and performed some of the segments in a metal club. They asked me to introduce it in French. Oh my God, my college French, I thought, and there were all these regular metalheads out for beer and moshing. I didn’t know if this was going to work, but I told them what we were doing. And then it just happened! I’ve never before seen a conductor with a baton and a mosh pit in the same place. I felt like my work on this planet is about to finish. So that was very satisfying!
When can people see “La Suspendida”?
On January 12, 13, and 14 at the Long Island City Culture Lab.
William Berger speaking at the San Francisco Opera, 2018 (Photo courtesy of William Berger)
Tell us about your recent book, “The Metaliad”—a mock epic inspired by Ariosto’s “Orlando furioso,” that depicts the metal scene in Brooklyn and the East Village.
As I said, my background is in the classics, specifically myth and the idea of the recurrence of myth. There’s a reason why, in the 18th century, so many operas came from episodes of Orlando furioso. I read the Orlando furioso over four years in classes with Bob Durling who was a great professor in Santa Cruz, with whom I also studied Dante. Orlando furioso is a mock epic from the 16th century. “Mock” doesn’t mean that it’s a satire. It’s an epic poem but it has a certain form and traditions which Ariosto invented. It’s in the changing of tone, sometimes comical, sometimes erotic, sometimes very theological. It’s also the birth of science fiction, like Star Wars when it’s good, when they remember to put the fun in it. Carrie Fisher was perfect because you’d have all the spaceships and then she’d walk in, obviously from Los Angeles, same as me, and want to kick Vader’s butt. Or like E.T. or Guardians of the Galaxy…
It occurred to me that the reason you do all that for a mock epic isn’t just to be a smart ass; it’s actually so that the true emotions get real in a new way, so that you’re disarmed. When something comes off stentorian from the beginning like Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, which I love, people today are very armored against that. But if you use the traditions of the mock epic, your emotions are open. Which is how I realized why La bohème still works, because they use aspects of the mock epic in Act 1 where they talk like great knights. We love Act 3 of La bohème because it’s when things get real, and out of all things from that time, that act will still wipe me out. I think it’s because Puccini so deftly used comedy and making fun of their own pretentiousness that, when it gets real, you really feel it!
So, I said to my husband Stephen, who is very much a sci-fi fan not a classics guy: right now, in a lot of places but also in the kind of grassroots music scene here in New York, there are strains of fascism, white supremacy, and racism, taking root. Sometimes it’s very overt because there are traditions in heavy metal that are overtly national socialist. What do you do about that? I say: you fight it! You don’t say that everyone gets a voice. Yes, that’s true until it comes to Nazis and then, no. You have to take a stand. That’s how The Metaliad came about. I saw this happening here and I said to Stephen, I’m going to write something modeled on the Orlando furioso based on what’s going on in our music scene right now. And he said a really smart thing: “Great, but tell your story first, and worry about showing how well you know Ariosto later.” So, I did. It’s in the form of ottava rima, ABABABCC, hendecasyllabic—11 syllables every line.
Impressive poetic skills!
I studied poetry. Growing up, I was also a huge Gilbert and Sullivan nerd. I shared that with my father who was really into it. He died when I was very young, so this is a connection that I have with him. But poetry wasn’t something I bragged about because it felt uncool. Part of writing The Metaliad was a coming out process about all that. Yeah, I’m a massive poetry nerd, specifically with lyrics and the masterful manipulation of the English language that Gilbert did. When I was in college, the cool people in the Lit Department said that writing in meter and rhyme was uncool. And then what happens? Hip-hop comes along and all of a sudden, the coolest people are doing poetry slams in a brilliantly metered and rhymed English. So I thought, let me have some fun with the language. Then I ended up putting way more of my real gutsy story in there than I intended to, more of my trauma I thought I had worked out 30-40 years ago of queer bashing and losing friends to violence and being hospitalized myself from violence. I didn’t think I was going to do this; it just happened, and I couldn’t edit that part. When we did our reading of it, I couldn’t read that part because it’s way too personal. I learned so much about opera writing this. Because myth is that part that’s true for everybody. I’m writing the sequel right now, The Maraudyssey, and it’s flowing out.
William Berger introducing La Suspendida at Foufounes Electriques, Montreal, July 2022 (Photo: Yohann Steinbrich)
What do you want people to get out of reading “The Metaliad”?
This sounds like the most pretentious thing, and it may be, but I think there’s also the exact opposite impetus in it too. I wrote notes in it, like we get in the textbook of Orlando furioso. Because one of the aspects of the mock epic tradition is allusion. You allude to a ton of things, sometimes comically. In The Metaliad I have allusions to the classics, but also to a lot of metal songs and love songs. It becomes a Pink Floyd song because when they go to get Orlando’s wits back, they have to fly to the dark side of the moon. These allusions are from my own personal library and I’m inviting you to trip around with them for a while. It’s not just to show off how much I know… well, maybe a little bit… In Protestant culture here in the United States, if you know a lot, you don’t show you know that much. I don’t ascribe to that. It’s okay to be that smart nerdy kid who’s read a lot. I dedicated it to the nerds. That nerd that you were hiding is actually the metal warrior in you, and it took me 60 years to figure that out. So, whatever you’re into, anything, like… competitive knitting, for example… that’s your warrior!
It’s your superpower.
That’s your superpower! That’s the metal we’re looking for, and that’s what The Metaliad is about.
As a writer on opera and commentator at the Met, how do you travel emotionally and mentally from, let’s say, “Don Carlos” to the mosh pit at a metal concert?
The two come from the same place or feel like they do for me. For lack of a better word, I’m going to call it Dionysian, the part that is a little messy in the creative process. The Apollonian part, with everything symmetrical and methodical, is also great and I could use more of it… like I should be cleaning my apartment today. For instance, I feel like Tosca is a Dionysian character and her nemesis, the Baron Scarpia, is an Apollonian character in extremis. We know that the Greeks respected both Apollo and Dionysus, and when one aspect went too far, it had to be checked. Tosca is about checking the power of the patriarchal state gone too far, through art. People say they could see opera and metal as similar; they’re both kind of loud and in your face. It’s not exactly that. Some people say that if you like metal you must like Wagner. Yes, but not in the way you think. Not because he’s loud and has the hammers in Nibelheim. In ways that are hard to describe, they’re coming from the same place, the difference being: one of them is best experienced by sitting there and taking it in, in a usually dark venue. And the other works best when there’s a certain amount of physical participation. Headbanging. Now there’s quite a bit of science that talks about headbanging being anti-anxiety.
Does it get things out of your system?
Oh, I gotta tell you there are times when nothing else works than just jumping up and down, which I think is a very Dionysian ideal, which is the root of opera.
It sounds like a ritual…
Absolutely! That’s how it started, as a religious ritual, and that’s how theatre started, as a sort of: “Well, let’s not have a cannibalistic orgy every year, let’s talk about a cannibalistic orgy and play pretend!” which is a lot of what we do in metal too. The play pretend ritual is an important check on oppressiveness. So, metal and opera are very different, but they seem to come from the same place.
Do you sing at all, and have you ever had any dreams of glory in that direction?
I sang in the church choir. And I wasn’t a good singer. We did some Russian liturgical things, and I was the third bass. It was mostly for the music education. I’ve never had dreams of glory in that. I’ve had them in other things that I’ve never done, like sports. What would it be like to win an Olympic gold medal in pole vaulting? I’ve never had that feeling with singing ever, isn’t that weird? But, especially when you’re writing about music, it’s good to be, on some level, either making music or participating in the making of music, because then you don’t become obscure like one of these bitter critics for whom nothing is good enough. If you’re in the process of making music or even producing it, I think it keeps you more tied to what people are trying to do.
How true! Some of these critics are so disconnected from what it takes to sing.
I think so.
I’m not saying that critics should be only kind, but when they understand what singers go through to perform, they can highlight the good, not focus solely on the negative aspects, unless those are blatant.
I think what happens with a lot of critics who, if anything, are too well educated in technique and in the “right” way to sing, is that it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons why. This is important in everything, in my work, especially in the commentary on radio. I always want to know the why in music. It’s a lot like cars which I don’t really have any interest in. But someone who’s a mechanic like my brother—that’s a hobby of his—is interested in how the car works. I’m interested in the ride. It’s the same with me with music. I want to know what ride you’re taking me on. For instance, people still love Maria Callas; and they have reasons. For me it’s because—and we’re right back where we started—when she is singing, it is always about a story, again, not the story of the libretto but something beyond that. Especially with her mythological characters.
Yes! Think of Medea…
Exactly like Medea. I enjoyed the movie too, where she doesn’t sing. I’m a big Pasolini fan. She’s so into the story of this myth, like: “13 years ago you heard me sing it but now I’m just going to become it!”
And she’s just riveting!
It’s amazing! When she’s running around kicking the earth and saying “Non ti sento più”—I don’t hear you anymore, I don’t feel you anymore—it’s like I know what this myth is about and why we keep turning back to it. Recently, there’s been the whole topic of Schenker and Schenkerian analysis. I see the value in it. But the problem is when you say that “good” music is that which holds up to this one system. That’s got to go! That’s fundamentalist thinking. And they go crazy trying to explain why Beethoven is the greatest, except for the late string quartets which we don’t understand. It’s like, well, if you just shut up and listen, you can enjoy all of it without worrying about any “errors” in it. Beethoven didn’t write errors; he wrote what he wanted to. If you get more out of one than another. that’s okay. It matters a little what Schenker would have thought of it, but that doesn’t have to define it or your experience of it.
So, let’s say you’re faced with a total newbie to both opera and metal. How would you convince them to experience both?
That’s interesting. Everyone asks me about one or the other, but they don’t ask me about both. You need a portal for both. Both metal and opera, at a unique level, thrive in community; they are both urban. Many have said that opera is for the elite, and they’re not exposed to it. That’s actually not true. People are exposed to it way more than they were years ago. The audiences at both are part of the experience of the art form. I would tell a newbie: go with someone whom you can ask questions. In metal, one thing that’s important for me—and one of the reasons that my home base is small shows with friends of mine performing—is because I need to know who the characters are. I tell them: every song you sing is an opera because you’re channeling a character whether you know it or not. So, I need to know, are you screaming at me or are you screaming for me? Are you giving voice to the scream I have inside me that I don’t have the voice to express? Like we said before, it’s a ritual they’re performing. Just like the opera divas. We all have a soprano, a tenor, a bass voice in us. I don’t just relate to the characters who are middle-aged men. You’re tapping something that doesn’t get tapped anywhere else. The same thing in metal: What’s your rage about, man? What are you so angry about? Are you angry for all the reasons that I’m angry which I didn’t even know I was angry about?
As you were growing up, did you ever imagine that you’d be doing all of this?
No. I thought I was going to be a novelist. When I was in Paris at seventeen, I thought: I’m coming back here and writing novels. And in a weird way I’m doing the subtext of that. I didn’t plan to move to New York. After college I just landed here and about two years later, I realized that this is the only place in the world that made sense to me. It’s where anything seems possible. Also, every single day since 1984, at one point in the day I’ll be struck by the weird beauty of it, the brutal ugly beauty of it, and I will have a moment of just, wow, I can’t believe I get to live here! I’ve lived here much longer than I’ve lived anywhere, and I still have that. I love L.A., more now than I did when I was growing up, and I love London. I could live anywhere, but the only reason I don’t is because it’s not New York.
Top photo: William Berger orating at The Metaliad reading – Photo: Ken Howard
More about William Berger and his work