The EMK Institute & countertenor David Hansen
Jared visits the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, which is dedicated to educating the public about our government, invigorating public discourse and encouraging participatory democracy. Plus, a conversation with countertenor David Hansen, who is performing in Boston Baroque’s production of Handel’s opera, Agrippina, on stage April 24 and April 25.
>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,
WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture
from around the region and the nation.
I'm Jared Bowen.
Coming up onOpen Studio,
the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute opens
with Warhol and Wyeth.
>> He believed that arts, you know, touched the soul.
And he thought it was the great, universal thing
that joined all of humanity.
>> BOWEN: Then, getting high with countertenor David Hansen.
>> One of the members of the choir, I believe, pulled me
aside one day and said, "Mate, you're a countertenor."
And I just looked blankly back at this person and said,
>> BOWEN: And choreographer Mark Morris
on the making of a masterpiece.
>> I choreograph because of music, specifically to music,
and music is my number one absolute priority in my life.
>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.
First up, the brand new Edward M. Kennedy Institute
is a monument to government and democracy.
Not to mention a memorial to a legendary senator.
But the Lion of the Senate was also
a captain of the canvas.
When the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate
opened in March, the last frigid winds of winter blowing,
even the President came to town.
>> What more fitting tribute, what better testament
to the life of Ted Kennedy than this place that he left
for a new generation of Americans?
A monument not to himself but to what we the people
have the power to do together.
>> BOWEN: Situated on Boston's Columbia Point,
the low-slung, minimalist white building stands in deference
to its next-door neighbor,
the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
Inside lies the nation's first center for the Senate,
a place to showcase its history, process, and vitality.
>> The Senate was a place where you instinctively
pulled yourself up a little bit straighter.
Where you tried to act a little bit better.
>> To be here and have the institute open, it's wonderful.
>> BOWEN: Victoria Kennedy guided the creation
of the institute
after the death of her husband, Senator Ted Kennedy, in 2009.
But it was born, she says,
very much of her late husband's vision and enthusiasm.
>> He loved the give-and-take of the Senate.
He loved the importance of the Senate.
He loved the difference it could make in the lives
And he really wanted to share that experience
with new generations.
>> BOWEN: Visitors here have an interactive experience.
On arrival, every patron is handed a trivia-laden tablet
for a deep dive into Senate history.
They can even assume the identity of a U.S. senator
to engage in the day's floor debate, which happens here--
a full-scale replica of the Capitol's Senate Chamber,
which Kennedy himself envisioned.
>> He believed in the majesty of that place.
And he said over and over that being a senator changed you.
And he thought so much of it is because when you walked
into that really hallowed space, you felt something,
you felt awe.
You looked around you and you knew
that men and women had been there before you
who had done really great things.
>> BOWEN: Tucked rather quietly into a back corner
of the institute is a recreation of the senator's D.C. office,
his political hive for most of his 47-year Senate career.
How difficult was it for you to see this the first time
>> It was very difficult, it was very difficult.
I thought I was very steeled and ready for it,
but I needed my private time for a little bit after that.
But now I'm good.
>> BOWEN: The office is lined with books.
Family photographs and letters dot every corner.
Even the tennis balls he kept for his Portuguese water dogs
have a place.
What does this office tell us about the senator?
>> Well, I think... I think it tells us that he was
a person who... you know, there's not an award
on any of these walls.
This is a man who loved his family.
And that's what you see on these walls.
>> BOWEN: The one thing everybody seems to say
in common when they see this space is how small it is,
how modest it is.
>> It is, it is, it is modest.
This is a teeny bit smaller than his actual office,
but not much.
And it is a modest space.
It wasn't about being grand.
It was about the work that happened.
You can tell a lot by the way the furniture is configured.
It's configured for conversation.
They'd sit over here, and people would talk,
and they'd be debating.
He'd have staff meetings in here, or he would,
you know, welcome colleagues in here.
And that's what I think you see.
This is a collaborative space.
>> BOWEN: When he wasn't working, Kennedy had a passion
His artwork populates the walls of his outer office--
the daffodils he painted for Vicki as a wedding present,
countless renderings of his beloved sea.
>> He studied art in school, but it was really in the 1950s
that he rekindled his passion for painting.
His brother, who was then Senator Kennedy,
John F. Kennedy, was recuperating from back surgery,
and was... started to paint.
And Teddy would paint with his brother.
And they would have paint-offs, if you will.
Whose painting is better?
>> BOWEN: Kennedy returned to painting throughout
his life-- for therapy after his 1964 plane crash,
as a retreat from the intensity of Washington.
Artists were drawn to him, too.
For his 1980 presidential bid, heavy hitters Andy Warhol
and Jamie Wyeth both created campaign artwork.
>> But other artists wanted to support his campaign,
and Teddy was such a supporter of the arts, always was.
He believed that arts, you know, touched the soul, and he thought
it was the great, universal thing
that joined all of humanity.
>> BOWEN: One of the final elements installed
at the Kennedy Institute was this painting of the senator
by his longtime friend Wyeth-- a fresh take
of a now historic figure.
>> Oh, I thought it was magnificent.
I thought it so beautiful, and I thought he really
And I talked to... I talked to Jamie Wyeth about it,
and he... it really hearkens back to a time
maybe in the 1980s when he saw Teddy sailing...
sailing his boat, and having that look on his face.
And I think he really captured him.
>> BOWEN: It's an intimate look at a man whose legacy
is now giant.
Now we go one-on-one
with Australian sensation David Hansen,
who stars in Boston Baroque's production
ofAgrippina next weekend.
He is a countertenor, getting high with a voice
in the mezzo-soprano range,
something his regular baritone speaking voice
would never suggest.
And you can see him right here in a recent rehearsal.
>> (singing in Italian)
>> BOWEN: David Hansen,
starring in Boston Baroque's Agrippina,
thank you so much for joining us.
>> Thanks for having me.
>> BOWEN: So we just heard you perform.
At what point did you realize that you could reach that range?
>> To be perfectly honest,
I thought all men sang the way I did.
Growing up with listening to the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson
and such, Beach Boys especially, I thought all men
had this ability.
And in fact, all men do have this ability to produce
some sort of falsetto sound.
But going back to your question, I was probably 15 or 16.
Grew up in Sydney, in Australia, as a surfer, and I was
always singing in a choir of some description.
And one of the members of the choir, I believe,
pulled me aside one day
and said, "Mate, you're a countertenor."
And I just looked blankly back at this person and said,
I had no idea what that was.
But shortly thereafter, my parents took me along
to the Sydney Opera House to see an opera
filled with countertenors calledJulius Caesar by Handel.
And I think there were three if not four countertenors
in this production.
And I sat there gobsmacked.
I couldn't believe it.
In fact, I think I burst out into laughter the first time
I heard one of these guys singing, and my mum had
to elbow me and say, "That's what you are."
>> BOWEN: Why the laughter?
>> It's just such a shock.
I mean, with pop music, you almost don't realize
what you're listening to.
But with opera, it is quite in your face.
It's... be it the projection, be it the seriousness of it,
and then hearing a high... not girly and not effeminate,
quite a masculine, but still a high male voice
come out is quite a shock for the first time, I think.
>> BOWEN: This is based on the castratos.
This is their voice.
And there was a physical means by which to get there,
to some degree, right?
>> Operatically speaking, yes, but what a lot of people
don't realize is that countertenors and castrati
are actually singing alongside one another throughout
the Baroque period, the Classical period, and later.
The last castrato died in the early 20th century.
And composers long after Handel were writing
for the castrati-- Mozart, even Rossini.
And although the castrati were the rock stars
of the time-- I mean, they were famed for fraternizing
with people like Casanova and getting involved
in all sorts of sordid affairs-- people traveled all over
the world just to come, especially, to Italy,
to see them performing.
So imagine going on one of these long, arduous journeys
cross country, be it in a coach and horse, or by boat,
and after months of travel, turning up to see an opera
with a famous castrato, and then you finally see them,
let alone maybe meet them afterwards.
I mean, yes, they had a massive celebrity.
>> BOWEN: And you do, to some degree, as well.
You have people coming... we were just talking
before we started taping-- you have people coming from
South America to see you.
>> Yeah, from Europe, and... yeah.
>> BOWEN: And what do you find people's reaction is?
I mean, you must feel it from the stage, too.
And in Boston last week, where I was performing,
in Cambridge, the audience... it was palpable.
You could feel what people wanted to express
even before they applauded, not just because of me,
because of all of the musicians.
And I think when music comes together, a performance
comes together, you really feel it on stage,
without any applause, without any cheering.
And so to meet these people afterwards and actually
ask them, "So, what is it about me or the other musicians
that you came to hear?"
And one of them said that especially with countertenors,
we all have such unique voices.
And I'm well aware that my voice might not be
to everyone's taste,
but thankfully it is to many people's taste.
>> BOWEN: So how do you get the voice?
Is it genetic, is it a lot of what you have to do physically?
>> Well, it's a lot of technical training.
As I said before, almost all men can produce
some sort of high falsetto sound.
But when it comes to classical singing,
be it as a countertenor, the only way to produce the sound
and maintain it is with support.
And if you don't support that sound,
it just fizzles out and dies.
And that's why many of them give up and become
baritones or tenors or basses.
>> BOWEN: Support meaning?
>> From the diaphragm.
And controlling your breath in a way
so that you can regulate the sound,
and be it sustain a long phrase,
or color a word, it all comes from down here.
And a lot up here, too.
>> BOWEN: Yeah.
And it's interesting that these are all shifted
to women, to some degree, over the last century.
>> BOWEN: And now you countertenors
are taking them back again.
>> Because I think, how could I ever compete with a voice
like Frederica Von Stade, for example?
Some of the things she made her career from,
pants roles, especially with Mozart, I could never
hope to emulate, because just the beauty, the tone quality,
I just can't compete with that.
So I know my place.
I know what I can and can't do, and I think that's
a very important rule for any artist.
>> BOWEN: Well, speaking of knowing your voice,
you've also... you've talked openly about how you know
that your voice is different, your countertenor voice
is different from others.
How do you characterize yours?
>> I'm in the higher side of things.
I mean, we all sing high.
We're all men who sing high.
However, the majority of countertenors are altos.
And I'm more of a mezzo-soprano.
That's both limiting as it also is not.
There... the best way to explain that is
for the last 30-odd years, since countertenors came
on the operatic scene, they've almost all been
So casting directors, promoters, they're so used
to these roles being filled by countertenors.
And the higher roles they filled with women,
because there weren't men who could sing them,
or sing them beautifully.
And over the last few years there have been a few
countertenors-- Philippe Jaroussky, who's been here,
Franco Fagioli, David Daniels, even-- who could
suddenly sing these roles that for decades,
centuries, even, had only been sung by women, and in my opinion
could sing them, in fact, more beautifully.
>> BOWEN: Do you, when you're not onstage...
you just burst out into song a little bit before we started
with pop music.
Do you listen to pop music?
Well, mostly jazz, away from opera.
But yeah, I love electropop and some pop.
I think pop music's actually getting... has gotten better
the last few years.
I think it's unhealthy to have preconceptions
about any form of music, because I think they can all be
married together if they're done well,
and we can learn and take things from other artists,
and apply it to what we do.
And I certainly try to do that.
>> BOWEN: Well, David Hansen... and that's what
I espouse all the time.
People don't always realize it, but all of the arts coalesce.
>> BOWEN: And whether it's high art, low art, it's all together.
>> Absolutely, and especially in opera, where you have to
find a character... and so often the characters I play are,
I mean, Julius Caesar, he's the perfect...
perfect leader of the army of his people, perfect lover.
And it's hard to humanize these characters unless
you find a fault to them.
And so when you can draw from history, like you can
with this story of Agrippina that we're presenting
in Boston, and then The Coronation of Poppea
later in Boston, the two stories draw upon the same characters,
but at two different points of history.
The way they're portrayed in history, they're actually
full of flaws.
And I think when we can tap into some of those flaws,
we can make them more human, and therefore make them
more believable to any audience watching.
>> BOWEN: Well, David Hansen... and people can see you
inAgrippina next weekend with Boston Baroque.
Thank you so much for joining us.
>> BOWEN: Finally choreographer Mark Morris achieved
international fame with his landmark work
L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato.
Since its premiere more than 25 years ago, the dance
has been performed to acclaim all over the world.
Set to Handel's Baroque masterpiece, a colorful array
of dancers embody the joy and sorrow that are part
of the human experience.
(choir singing in Italian)
>> I consider myself a musician.
And I choreograph because of music,
specifically to music,
and music is my number one absolute priority in my life.
The piece is called L'Allegro, il Penseroso,
ed il Moderato.
It's based on these incredible poems of Milton.
L'Allegro, someone who's happy, joyful, extrovert.
Il Penseroso, the thoughtful person,
the cloistered person.
And then Charles Jennens,
librettist who Handel worked with,
added a character called Il Moderato.
The poetry is an argument between these two characters,
which I will call Mirth and Melancholy.
They talk about each other.
And Handel, in structuring the piece to be set to music,
rearranged that further
so that the so-called happy music
is done by the sad character, and vice versa.
>> In L'Allegro there are 24 dancers,
a full Baroque orchestra, a choir,
a four-part choir, and four solo singers--
two sopranos, one tenor, and one bass.
>> You know, it's been really interesting to learn
more about music as a dancer with Mark, because he is
I notice a big difference between vocal music
that he choreographs to
and, you know, instrumental music.
(woman singing in Italian)
So L'Allegro is a prime example of that.
There are obviously instrumental sections,
and then there are these beautiful poems.
>> If and when you buy this poem, there are beautiful
watercolor plates by William Blake, who loved
this poem, and in his own incredible, magic way,
gave his point of view.
The costumes that they wear in these paintings
are impossible, because they go from nudity to skirted,
and we don't... there's no structure.
It's an imaginary costume.
So the color palette of the sets and the costumes
has a reference to William Blake, just because we like it.
Adrianne Lobel, who designed the sets for this, started
by giving me many, many sheets
of different color combinations.
Because we decided early on that it should be representative
of the landscapes and the cityscapes
that are mentioned in the text, and how to do that
without, you know, putting in a river and a mountain
and a church and a square?
I didn't want it to be that.
But Adrianne came up with a series
of 21 drops and scrims, it's turned out, which is a lot,
so that everything can change color all the time.
>> Mark has such a unique sense about every single dance.
Every single dance is different from the other.
Even in L'Allegro, every section is different from the other.
And every dance has its own identity, its own life,
its own, like, DNA, if you will.
One of my favorite scenes is the hunt.
And it's a hunt of two foxes.
And the dancers create the scenery.
We become the trees, the shrubbery, the hunting party,
the dogs, the foxes.
So the audience doesn't have to imagine
that they're watching a fox hunt.
They're actually seeing it onstage.
>> A big, big, important reason why this piece
is successful-- and it is, we've been doing it
for many years all around the world--
is because of the fabulous dancers in my company,
the Mark Morris Dance Group.
And not just the ones in the recording of this dance
that you've seen, but all of the ones
before and after.
>> We often get told that we look... as dancers,
as a company, we look like everyday people.
We don't look like dancers.
The point of Mark's work, I think, is that it looks
inclusive, and it looks like anyone can do it.
Having been on both sides of that,
I know that that's not true.
It's very rigorous and technically demanding.
>> I think that it has a beautiful classicism to it.
The simple walks and gestures are not pedestrian in any way.
They're not modern.
They reference, you know, classical sculpture
and classical philosophy.
(woman singing in Italian)
>> In this piece, L'Allegro, I use a great deal
of techniques or forms that come from the national dances,
the local dances, the folk dances,
the oral tradition dances, of many cultures.
There's a dance with two lines of 12 people
in exact symmetrical patterns.
And that's from a dance from Bulgaria where people
do this limping step, up, down, up, down,
sort of posting, like on a horse.
And so it's everyone in the dance drawing
in the space of the theater these lines.
And it looks great from anywhere--
from straight up, from straight overhead,
and from inside it.
It's meant to make people want to participate in it.
And they do.
I think it's my responsibility as a choreographer to find out
everything I can about a piece of music.
So aside from just loving a piece of music,
I have to understand it
dramaturgically and historically.
(woman singing in Italian)
All this music from the Baroque period is based
on dance rhythms.
It all springs from that.
And plus, the incredible detail and complexity
and fabulous structure of this music doesn't just
make you want to dance-- it makes you... makes me
believe what's being said.
So I'm not a religious man, but the religious music
from that period is unequaled.
>> "Basilica" is... takes place in a church,
a beautiful church with a stained glass window.
You walk in, you look down a hallway, and you've suddenly
found yourself in this gorgeous basilica.
It's a beautiful piece of organ music, and you're
just standing there looking at this gorgeous set,
being bathed in this light.
And it's really... it's really remarkable.
It's supposed to be a religious experience.
And while it might not be that for everyone,
it's certainly a really beautiful moment
to sort of take stock of where you are.
(choir singing in Italian)
>> On any given evening, there'll be something
that will stick out and will move you in a way
that may surprise you.
I think the beauty of the piece and the music
is that we all can relate to it.
We all experience the highs of life and the joys
that come with it, and also the sadness
and the beautiful word of melancholy,
which isn't just sad.
It's a rich, deep... you can actually find joy
in the sadness, and warmth in the melancholy.
>> The work represents a sense of community to me.
Everybody needs somebody else to complete the tasks
that we were given.
And in completing those tasks, that's where
the humanity comes across.
>> It's a work of incredible hope and, dare I say, joy,
because it is.
So the argument isn't "You should be like this"
or "You shouldn't be like this,"
L'Allegro or Penseroso.
It means that everyone has a value.
And these moods, if you will, counterbalance one another.
So the point isn't moderato.
The point is a very big range that you can participate in
in your whole life.
And that's manifested through this piece of theater art.
>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.
Next week, the art of baseball, with a heavy hitter curator.
>> This felt like a change,
but an important sort of direction for us to take.
>> BOWEN: Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.
Thanks for joining us.
As always, you can visit us online at WGBH.org/OpenStudio.
And you can follow us on Twitter, @OpenStudioWGBH.
Is it possible to break glass with your voice?
>> No, not that I know of.
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